When I heard Morissey sing those lines, “There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more” (they are in The Smiths song Handsome Devil) I felt I might have found a motto for my life. Because I’m a fiend for books and always have been.
When I visit somebody for the first time I can’t help myself. My eyes are drawn almost against my will to their bookshelves, as if I can make some kind of assessment of their character by what I see there. I dream about browsing in bookshops. I read every day and I chew through so many books in a year that it just isn’t funny. My bookshelves are stuffed with volumes I mean to read one day, and with books I’ve read again and again.
It was an addiction that started when I was very young. One of my earliest childhood memories is of realising that adults had a way of recording and recalling fleeting thoughts and ideas using black squiggles on pieces of paper. The instant I observed this I desperately wanted to be part of the secret.
As it happened, I learnt to read from those Batman cards that used to be sold with packets of Scanlon’s bubblegum. My Dad brought packets of them home for me many days, and I loved them. They had garish pictures of my TV hero, fighting slimy reptiles or suchlike, along with pithy slogans written inside little bat-shaped panels in the corner. I pestered my parents to read the slogans over and over until I knew them off by heart. Then I dazzled my grandfather, who was startled to discover that no matter what card he put in front of me, I could “read” the slogan. It was really just an act of memory, but it got me started.
The first book I read from cover to cover was Noddy in Toyland, by Enid Blyton, and one of my earliest ambitions was to be able to “read inside my head” – as in not having to speak the words aloud as I followed the story.
To me, books were virtual reality. A cyberspace I could enter at will, where I could get to know characters and places that millions of other readers had already visited and enjoyed. The smattering of books in our house – mostly survivors from my parents’ childhoods – was quickly exhausted. I connected with my mother’s past when I read The Coral Island and Black Beauty. I retraced my father’s footsteps in the pages of Biggles in Borneo and William Again.
Next I started on the non-fiction titles like The Modern Marvels Encyclopedia and when my parents subscribed to The Readers Digest I devoured that monthly treat and looked forward to the arrival of the occasional condensed book volume or those gloriously illustrated treats the Digest produced. My favourite was Our Amazing World of Nature but at a pinch I’d resort to the Readers Digest Book of Great Painters and Paintings or even the Atlas of Australasia.
I understood that books were more than entertainment. They were also repositories of information. I got used to the idea that if I wanted to make or do something in the real world, I could learn from the experiences of those who had made and done those things already and recorded their discoveries in books.
In my family I became known as “the spine-basher”. If anybody ever wanted to find me, they first had to prise me from my book. After all these years little has changed. I still love books and I indulge my love of them with great freedom and no remorse. Non-fiction dominates my reading list, because truth really is so much stranger than much fiction, but now and then I read a novel or some poetry if the mood takes me.
It delighted me when I became a parent and could share my love of reading with my children. I loved to read them C.J. Dennis’s A Book for Kids, and they loved a crazy book called Susan and the Bogeywomp, by Lawson Glassop – the son of a Newcastle town clerk. I’m delighted that my children have each turned to books for recreation and pleasure and I now experience the joy of having them share some of their bookish discoveries with me.
Now I have grandchildren I look forward to sharing the mysterious world of books and reading with them too.
Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read. (Groucho Marx)
Here’s a link to a great book collecting site: