In praise of Books

Because today is World Book Day and thus a post is practically obligatory on my part because seriously, how could I not? I have almost 1,500 of the wonderful things living in my house and another couple of hundred cuddled up in my kindle.

A few of the books I’ve read or re-read in the last couple of weeks

Except I’m not quite sure what to say about my biggest addiction – and it’s definitely an addiction because believe me, if I had the same compulsive need for cigarettes, cocaine or alcohol as I do for devouring the written word then I’d probably be dead already – other than to state that they have brought more joy into my life than anyone could reasonably expect ink spattered paper to do.

One of my first memories is being read to by my Gran and my Mum and, other than a few memories of white socks on flailing feet, tadpoles in jars on windowsills and an enormous horse (which was probably only a pony but I think a two year old can be forgiven for thinking most things are enormous) the rest of my earliest childhood recollections involve stories of some kind or the flora margarine tub that went with me to school everyday for my first year, holding the neatly hand written cards (Mrs Poulter, our reception teacher, had beautiful handwriting) with the weeks words on them (most of which I already knew but still, they were words, word were brilliant!). I read everything I could lay my paws on (yes, I said paws, I had a phase when I wanted to be a cat) and I do mean everything, the dictionary included; I’d finished the entire primary school reading system before I turned seven which gave me four years (four, the joy!) of reading “off plan”. That boiled down to whatever my teachers pointed me towards in the school library (and eventually the village one because it wasn’t a huge school) or, more usually, the things they tried to take away on the basis that they were to old for me (I read all three Lord of the Rings books when I was seven, to give you an idea of what I thought was suitable reading material).

I loved books; completely and utterly adored them. They didn’t ask me to be anything other than who I was, they took me to places I had never been and they allowed me to wander off in my own head at will during the break times when the taunts and the jeers became too much and I needed somewhere to hide in plain sight.

So I read and I read and just kept on reading and I’ve never, ever, stopped. I became D’Artagnan, Enjrolais, Boudicca and Elizabeth I (although not at the same time, obviously). I wrestled tigers with Victorian explorers, (the names of whom I’ve since forgotten – the explorers, not the tigers), fell in love with Mr Bennett, hated Mr Darcy (right up until the point where I didn’t) and shuddered with horror at the phosphorous jowls of that poor abused dog running hither and thither across Dartmoor. I fought side by side with Arthur and Bedwyr and I delved into the deepest mysteries of the earth with Merlin and Morgause. I fell down the rabbit hole with Alice and emerged on distant shores with Prince Caspian and Aslan. I even thought of learning Sindarin so I could speak to Legolas and Aragorn as they spoke to each other (I never attempted it though, languages have never been my strong point). I helped build the pyramids and learnt about the Gods of the Pharaoh’s (I tried to learn hieroglyphs too, equally as unsuccessfully) and then I rushed heedlessly into the void of the Greco-Roman underworld before rushing out again, but I must have looked back as I keep returning there. I joined the throng of children on the London station platforms as they were evacuated from the Blitz and I tried to keep my stomach under control while Edmund Talbot failed to as we set sail for Australia. In short I lived other people’s lives while I came to terms with how I should shape my own.

And not only did I read vociferously, I read quickly too – training myself to be able to scan a page and pick up the salient information as fast as humanly possible so I could find out what was going to happen next and so I could move on to the next interesting thing on my to-read list. Yet I didn’t – and still don’t – miss the point of the book or lose any of my love for language; I can remember doing a sponsored read in either my first or second year of secondary school and finished some ridiculous number (my head is saying twenty but unless some of them were really short I doubt I quite managed that many) of books in a 24 hours period. My teacher, on looking at the list of what I’d completed, did a double take and then, opening both the first and last books on the list, each at a random page, she read a couple of lines and asked me to tell her what happened next; which I did with enough detail to make her apologise profusely for doubting me.

I still love books, now more than I did then, if that is actually possible. There are books I have read and will never read again (War & Peace being foremost what is a relatively short list) but there are books that I return to again and again like old friends, when I need soothing or bucking up or just to quite the roar in my head. The bookshelf in my bedroom is filled with these – the entirety of Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s published works, all of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall stories and the Harry Potter canon reside quite happily alongside C.S Lewis’s Narnia series and Ransom trilogy, T.H. White’s The Sword and the Stone, Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave trilogy and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth series.

Then, living downstairs in the dining room, are my collection of Sherlock Holmes books (the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, Leslie S. Klinger’s annotated version and more pastiches and essay collections than I think is good for me); my Tolkien collection (The Hobbit, LotR, The Silmarillion, Children of Hurin and most wonderfully – which was a Christmas gift this year from Ben – the entire History of Middle Earth) and a decent shelf-full of most of Shakespeare plays that I turn to when I need reminding that I am human and frailty is acceptable.

The rest of the downstairs heaves with an extremely eclectic mix of authors and subjects, from anatomy manuals to both historical fact and fiction from a variety of centuries, children’s books that I haven’t been able to part with (Redwall series anyone?) to the sort of literary fiction that often appears on shelves because it looks good (however there are only ten books in my house that I haven’t read and all of them relate to WWI or the Afghanistan conflict and were bought in the past month).

But my own personal library is the jewel of my house. It resides in the smallest of the rooms that do not contain toilets and yet it sets my bookish heart a flutter every time I walk in:

My desk is in the middle (in front of the window looking out onto the back garden) but it’s what is on either side that fills my soul with joy; the walls are completely covered in shelves and those shelves are almost completely full of books. The majority of my Arthurian collection resides to the left, taking up the top three shelves along with my collection of myths and legends from around the globe and my tomes on practical magic, druidry, and the arts of tarot reading, rune stones and other methods of divining the future. 

Below them live all my books on World War I (plus Winston Churchill’s six books on World War II and Overlord by Max Hastings), several books detailing the history of the British Armed Forces and everything I’ve been able to lay my hands on in respect of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan (including Callsign Hades by Patrick Bury and An Ordinary Soldier by Doug Beattie which should both be on all school reading lists in the UK so our teenagers might understand what being in the army really means). 

My beloved Oxford English Dictionary, Thesaurus and Brewster’s Phrase and Fable also sit over there, along with my truly random reference books (a dream dictionary and a guide to pregnancy amongst others) picked up from charity shops that are partly hidden by the reading chair tucked into the corner. 

On the right my collection of Philosophy books take up the majority of the shelving closest to the window; most of them amassed whilst at university studying said subject but some, like the most up to date Daniel Dennett’s and a rather lovely, if elderly, copy of Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia, have arrived a little more recently. 

Then my poetry collection fills the next few shelves, giving way to some “sciencey” books (In search of Schrödinger’s Cat, Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Human Brain and the like) more children’s books I can’t bring myself to part with (Winnie-the-Pooh, Anne of Green Gables etc). 

Following these are my reference collection of “writing” books – grammar and so forth, literary reviews of different authors and styles and various people’s versions of how to write, when to write, what to write etc. (although I’ve come to realise that there really is no right way to write but your own and the best teacher is to read as much as you write and learn that editing is your friend), finishing off nicely with a set of foreign language dictionaries and a teach yourself Latin guide that has amused and frustrated me in equal measure for years (I did say about the language thing, didn’t I?).

My bookshelves are me, laid bare. All of the weird and wonderful things I am interested in spread out for instant perusal and available any time of night or day. All I need is a source of light and my eyes and I am completely, one hundred percent, happy. I’m not sure what I’d do if I couldn’t read or I couldn’t get hold of a book. I’m not sure how I’d manage if the ability to find out about absolutely anything or become someone else just by reaching out, opening the pages and diving in was taken from me and I hope I never have to find out.

Which I why, as well as wishing you all a happy World Book Day and inviting you to tell me what joy books have brought into your lives, I ask you to do one more thing in the next few days; go to your local library and borrow a book. Because if we don’t support our libraries they will be gone, the next generation will lose an extremely precious resource and our world will be a lot poorer for it.

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