Yes, a true confession. I was called a “bookworm” as a child, and my bookwormish instincts remain intact – even though I spend as much time (or more time) writing these days. Nevertheless, books are hard-wired into me. And today, in case you didn’t know or notice, is UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day.
UNESCO tweeted today: “Reading for just six minutes a day can reduce stress by 68%.” I am not sure who figured this out, but it makes sense to me. For me, growing up (we didn’t have television), it was an escape, a journey with many corners and detours. My favorite books as a child are embedded in my consciousness, and nothing could ever weed them out: The Arabian Nights for example – or 1001 Nights, where Shahrazad tells story upon wonderful story, to save her life: Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp, The Great Caliph Haroun Al Rashid, The Story of Pomegranate of the Sea, and much more. My father gave this book to me for Christmas when I was seven years old, and I treasure it still.
Fantasy was a great love of mine that has stayed with me into adulthood, I feel. It was nurtured by my beloved aunt, who was deeply interested in myths and legends (especially the British kind), and my father, who was equally fond of ghost stories – M.R. James, and the like. Then my brother introduced me to science fiction, which he read avidly during the 1960s: Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick (whose short story inspired the classic film Blade Runner) to name a few…. So I went into a pretty intense Science Fiction Phase, and never really grew out of it.
In my earlier childhood, I had started collecting a magnificent series of fairy stories and legends by Andrew Lang: Twelve glorious volumes, each one a different color and beautifully illustrated in great detail. Lang (1844-1912) was a Scottish poet, novelist and literary critic, who collected stories from all over the world – not only European, but African, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Native American folk stories, many translated into English for the first time. Sadly, I seem to have lost these books. Perhaps my siblings have some.
As I grew up, I somehow absorbed a love of nature. It was just something that happened organically – if you will pardon the pun. A series of beautiful but probably little-known books (again, purchased for me by my aunt) caught my imagination and inspired a love of the British countryside. They were written and illustrated by someone with the mysterious pen name “B.B.” – who was actually a naturalist, a prolific writer and illustrator named Denys Watkins-Pitchford (1905 – 1990). He wrote several books about Bill Badger; but my favorites were Down the Bright Stream, The Little Grey Men and The Forest of Boland Light Railway. These books were more than children’s books about fairy-like creatures. The gnomes (“Little People”) were very ancient and lived in harmony with nature – with water voles, otters and other animals that are now all too scarce. They observed the noisy and destructive “Mortals” (humans) from a distance.
Here’s a nostalgic little passage from Down the Bright Stream:
Somehow there was a strong hint of late summer in the air. In the flat river meadows the hay had been cut and carted, the aftermath was already springing green. And the buttercups had gone and the elder with them, no longer did their sweet smell make the night air heavy. In the luminous darkness the meadowsweet lining the river bank seemed very white, and glowworms gleamed in the damp grass. At the end of the summer, you may have noticed that there is a peculiar smell about the fields; it isn’t that first fresh smell, and mingled with it is the faint tang of cattle and sheep and mature plants and leaves. And the swallows, too, they were beginning to band together. It wouldn’t be long before the harvest.”
In my early teens, I also discovered the strange, emotionally suppressed world of the Brontë sisters. I loved the Sturm und Drang of Wuthering Heights – but Jane Eyre was a book I read, and re-read. Perhaps I was just a little too young to read it, but I plunged in – and truly believed that I was Jane, and she was I. Time for a re-read, I think.
So moving into my teenage years (still minus television), I entered reading territory that was much less sweet and gentle. I went through phases. I plunged into an intense Nineteenth-century European Novel Phase – which I still delve into from time to time. My Russian Phase was heavy going. I think I started with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The book is by no means as pretty as its many film and television adaptations – and how on earth could the BBC adapt it into just six episodes! I was thereafter hooked.
There was more Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment haunted me for years afterwards) and Gogol, and Ivan Turgenev, and the wistful plays and short stories of Anton Chekhov. And later on in the Russian pantheon, and wonderful as the classic film is and shall remain (albeit again “prettified” and romanticized), Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak captured me. His poetry is also exquisite.
By this time I did not receive so many beautiful hardcover books, as in childhood. I bought much cheaper paperbacks, and devoured them at considerable speed. I never went anywhere without a book. Now, those paperbacks I still have are virtually unreadable. I have had to throw many of them out, and really need to replace them. At the same time, I might re-read them…
What am I reading now? I love novels by modern writers from around the world (you can see this from some of the book reviews I have written, although I have many more to write). I am still in my Latin American Writers Phase but have also entered, I think my Very Long Novels by Women Writers phase. Having wallowed deliciously in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, I am now enjoying The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (a Canadian-born New Zealander, just 30 years old), which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013.
I could go on and on, but have to stop somewhere. One of these days I might do my “Essential Fiction Reading List” (I rarely read non-fiction, except for the occasional biography). Oh, did I mention that I worked for eight years in the book business in Jamaica?
Meanwhile, don’t forget books, in whatever shape or form, whatever your reading tastes. Personally I am not particularly fond of the Kindle, but am planning to revive mine soon and give it another try. After all, a good read is a good read.
P.S. On another note… You will no doubt have noticed the change in color scheme on my blog. This is in honor of You-Know-Who. I had not even begun to get over David Bowie’s death (I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about him for weeks now, but I get much too sad) – and now another brilliant and defiantly unique spirit has gone and left us, too young. It rained all day in Kingston on the day of Prince’s death. I colored it purple.