My love affair with books began before I could even read. I have so many clear memories throughout my childhood where books are the primary memory, so vivid I wish I could turn them into video clips to share with you all because they are so blissfully wonderful, even if they are not always happy. I wanted to share just a few of them here with you, because personally I always love hearing about how people fell – and remained – in love with reading.
One of earliest happy memories is toddling off with my mum to pick out a Mr Man book for my achievements at school. As a bit older, I remember picking out Roald Dahl book by book when I visited the orthodontist each time with my first brace, aged nine, to make up for the discomfort and frustration. Sadly for my mother, I wasn’t as placid a child as my own is. On reflection she would have been far more justified buying herself a bottle of gin after every appointment.
The summer my grandmother died, I remember walking around my grandfather’s garden in circles, reading the latest Harry Potter book, the magical book the only thing keeping me calm in the build up to her slow, delayed death.
Memories so vivid I can recall the smell of being curled up in my room of our family holiday caravan, reading Goosebumps, Heidi, Sabrina The Teenage Witch. In fact, the geek I am, I bought my favourite Sabrina book in French as well and would air there with then both open, comparing the two, knowing they weren’t a word for word match, but hoping to gain some language from it. I can feel the thin caravan walls, feel the creak of the window opening, see my book shelf stretching above the twin beds in the little room that served so many hours of my childhood.
On a slightly more amusing note, being so determined to improve my French in my early teens, I remember carefully stalking my way through a book shop in the local little town, trying to pick a book that I might be able to teach myself the most from whilst still enjoying. I remember the look on the face of the shop assistant as I paid for it excitedly. She looked a combination between amused, confused, and bemused. It was “Candide”. I still have it.
I remember laying on the beach in Bunbury, Western Australia, in a bikini, having worked hard on a naval base for a week, reading “Enduring Love” through sunglasses in glaring sunshine. The sand was so warm, you couldn’t lay on it for too long in once position as it was warmer than the heating pads I use now to counter my endometriosis. I held the book up in front of the sun, and then flipped onto my front to give me back a rest from the sand, by exposing it to that glorious sunshine. I’m not even a sun fiend, I just crave that moment so often. Whenever ai think of that book, I feel the pure white sand between my toes, I hear my friends winding me up about having my nose in a book, kindly, with humour, and I feel the lightness in my chest when I finally caved in, closed my book, and ran into the see with them.
One of my dearest book memories is Les Misèrables. I read the whole thing, unabridged, at thirteen. I carried that school library book around with me no matter how heavy it was. I cried at the beauty of it, and, at a time where my teenage melodrama thought nothing could be more perfect than Éponine’s death in the rain as her love sang to her, I was proved wrong, in that the true magic is to be found in the words of Victor Hugo himself, and no musical will ever quite capture that.
It was also the choosing of a book that led me to my other life-long love, Egyptology. After a parent’s evening full of praise, my proud parents took me to a book shop to choose a book, this time “any book”, and, not restricted to the Mr. Men section, I browsed for what felt like hours of wonder. I can still smell that shop, and though it has been gone for several years now, I still smile when I go past where it had been. Being both a bibliophile and terrible at making decisions, I had several “maybes” and then suddenly I came across a book and activity set focusing on Ancient Egypt. A decision was made. A love was born. I taught myself all of that book almost word for word, and within the following year, my parents caved in to my constant nagging, and allowed me to watch “proper” documentaries, rather than rewatching the single three episode children’s series that the then “children’s programmes at certain hours only, shown once, record onto video if you want to see again” BBC had produced. Now as a parent, I think this was less of a kindness to me, and more of a need to watch something else. I sat there, eyes wide, as I watched that first grown up programme. Egypt still fills me with that sense of wonder, and to think that everything I know and love about it wouldn’t even be in my sphere of thinking had I not picked up that book over twenty years ago, is both incredible and endearing.
And so when my son came along, I knew for sure I would surround him with books from the very first days. Which is exactly what I did. Money was very tight, but once a week, we would get the bus to the nearest small town rather than large city, and raid all five of their charity shops for books. Some were perfect for the stage he was at, some I would store away until he was. We would read whilst I breastfed him, and as he grew older, he would “read” to me, babbling happily with different sounds to make the variety of a sentence, turning the pages excitedly, yet carefully. He never damaged a book. I remember tears once when, aged two or three, we opened up the map at the end of a new charity shop book to find it had been ripped and drawn on. He was horrified and furious. Now, approaching his last six months in single digits, he is still just as careful with books, never folding down corners, carefully removing dust covers so they don’t accidentally get damaged.
Books may be a mere collection of ink and paper if you break it down to that, but I doubt many people reading this will. The magic of books is that they have the power to engulf you in every emotion possible, transport you to thousands of different worlds, empathize with characters so real you could spot them in the street. And they build into your memories. You know where you were when you read that last chapter. You remember what you were wearing when you reached that twist in the plot. As well as being rectangles in a bookcase, they become fundamental building blocks to our lives, and the holes they would leave with their absence isn’t worth thinking of.