On Reading

  • By Robin Barker
  • 27 Sep, 2017

To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience, and the fruits of many inquiries.

A life thus equipped might not be happier – might sometimes be less so, indeed, for to know more can be to feel more, and the ground-note of history is a long cry of pain- but it is vastly richer.

ACGrayling in A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel, Flamingo, Harper Collins, London, 1997.

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I once heard a well-known writer refer to himself as a having been a spontaneous reader from early childhood. Rather taken with the phrase and finding the idea appealing, I decided that I too had been a spontaneous reader from a young age.

Nice idea but on reflection, in my case, not true.

I do have memories of magically knowing some words but having to sound out others and one day being confused about ‘put’, which after sounding it out the way I’d been taught, became putt as in putty.
Mother putt the baby in the cot??
I knew enough by then to conclude that in the context of the sentence, putt didn’t make any sense at all.

I worked out that ‘putt’ had to be ‘poot’ thereby demonstrating in a tiny way that the ongoing battle between phonics and whole language is silly. Surely children can benefit from both when learning to read.
As an experienced school-teacher friend explained to me, ‘it’s not one system versus another - we throw everything at them’.

In my case the ‘put’ word opened the flood gates and soon I was silent-reading big books and secretly pitying classmates who were still finger-pointing and mouthing every word as they painfully journeyed down the page.

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Growing up in a home where books had great value and there was plenty of conversation probably contributed as much to my reading ability as working out that putt meant put.

My parents had a modest library and my mother read to me every night. She also read to me whenever I was sick and encouraged me to persist with more complex books, for example, Swallows and Amazons, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre . Despite money being tight, I was always given two or three books every birthday and Christmas and I treasured books over and above toys and clothes.

I spent hours arranging and rearranging my library in the small bookcase my father built for me according to a variety of categories: size, author, topic, series, the year they came into my possession, the country they came from (largely limited to Australia, England and Canada).

I became a critical reader deploring gifts of ‘childish’ books from adult relatives and friends, and the silly religiously-themed books handed out for prizes at Sunday School. I was also deeply suspicious of authors who tried in clunky fashion to insert a moral - the equivalent of diversity, social justice and the guilt-inducing environmental themes rampant in children’s literature today - into their stories.

Once I was over an author (Enid Blyton, for example), I took a dim view of friends still stuck on whichever author I’d decided to cast aside for authors I considered to be of a higher order.
Even worse were classmates who were only just discovering authors I’d moved on from years ago.

In other words, I became a reading snob from a young age. A real pain in the bum.
Being a precocious reader didn’t lead me to academic excellence as is often touted as being the case. Apart from reading, I was only ever academically average and positively dyslectic at maths, map reading and telling left from right.

Reading for me has never been about studying or being clever or setting out to deliberately learn stuff. Reading is my escape from all that. It is relaxing, exciting, funny and deeply satisfying. In a busy, noisy world reading is blessedly silent and solitary.

Finding the ever-changing complexity of modern technology difficult (to put it mildly), I take great pleasure in the simplicity of books. A book is a miracle of design that has stood the test of time. Economical, hospitable and portable. Nothing to set up. No buttons to press, no lights, no beeps, no background music. No power or technology required. Simply open it up and off you go.

I realise there are now so many appealing electronic distractions that reading is no longer first choice for diversion and entertainment. Nevertheless, I find it puzzling how many people feel the need to apologise for ‘not having the time’ to read (a book). No one apologises for ‘not having the time’ to watch the screen, stare at their phone or spend hours on their computer.
It seems that for an ever-increasing number of people, reading has morphed into a guilt-inducing duty (a bit like going to the gym or the dentist) rather than – how it once was - a way to relax and escape.

 Reading for addicted readers is as essential as breathing, and there’s always time to do it. I never leave the house without a book, nor turn off the light at night without reading first. And these days, I often have the luxury of waking early and reading in bed before easing into my day. But even when my life was hectic, I still read to escape the rat-race, calm myself down and put things into perspective.

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In earlier times, reading for pleasure was viewed with suspicion as being potentially morally and psychologically damaging, especially for children and young women.
“‘She is too fond of books and it has turned her brain’”, says Mrs. Stuart about Christie, her young servant girl’” ( Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience, 1873).

I read obsessively as a child, not only because it was as natural as breathing but because it was a private hiding place, a refuge, a source of exciting and, at times, gob-smacking information, and blessed reassurance that the things I thought were often things that other people thought as well.
And, after the bike-riding, the swimming, the playing, the tennis and hockey were over there was nothing else to do.

Helen Garner (The Feel of Steel, Pan Macmillan, Australia, 2001), beautifully describes how reading was for kids of our generation:

'How wonderful it was the way we read as children. We read while we got dressed in the morning, we read instead of doing our homework, we read long after everyone else in the house was asleep. It was bliss and obsession. It was pure.'

My parents were happy that I liked reading but my reading obsession also drove them mad:

‘Put that book away. Stop reading and get dressed. Is that a book under your science textbook? Turn that light out or I’ll confiscate that book. Now.’

Genres aimed at different age-groups for children didn’t exist in the 1950s. There was no young adult genre sub-divided into the many themes that are available today.
By twelve to fourteen, children who were readers went straight from children’s books to adult fare.

Apart from being forbidden on pain of death to read comics or the confessional romance magazines that many of my peer group devoured, I was left to read whatever I pleased from my parent’s selection or from our local library.

Naturally I hankered after what was forbidden and I once smuggled in a pile of True Confession magazines and hid them under my bed. Sadly, they were ferreted out by my father and disposed of in the backyard incinerator. The friend I’d borrowed them from didn’t speak to me for weeks and never again trusted me with her precious hoard of inside information about the mysterious things that went on between men and women.

As it turned out, I found out much more from books than confessional magazines. As my book reading was uncensored by my parents, I picked up many startling revelations about all manner of things in my early teens including life as a closet homosexual in London ( Against the Law, Peter Wildblood, Julian Messner, Inc, New York, 1959) and how a bull inseminates a cow with a helping hand from a peasant girl, ( Earth, Emile Zola; translated  by Ann Lindsay, Bestseller Library, 1959). I was also astonished to read the incomprehensible, creepy story of a father having sex with his daughter ( Kings Row, Henry Bellamann, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1945) .

Heady stuff for a 1950s teenager, a time when sex education and other related matters were strictly censored for young people. It was also a time when homosexual acts between men were illegal and the word lesbian was rarely heard.

Besides delving into adult fare, I still read books aimed at younger readers and Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Emily ( Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest) has remained a friend for life. My mother’s battered copy of each book of the Emily trilogy still have a place on my bookshelves.

Aside from weird stuff, I painlessly absorbed history, science, astrology, literature, art, drama, politics and all of what the Greek myths had to offer in ways I never did at school. I learned about some amazing women; Katherine de Swynford, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth 1, Theodora, Emily Pankhurst.

Many of the underlying (adult) themes, historical underpinnings and sub-texts of the books I read escaped me and I didn’t understand a lot of the writing but, thanks to my mother teaching me the rewards of persisting, it rarely stopped me steadily forging on until the last page.

I still have a reluctance of not finishing a book once I start reading it. Books are like people. You need to get to know them and give them a chance.
Even if I’m not initially engaged I’ll read at least 200 pages and, if necessary, go back and start again to get used to the writing and to get a handle on the characters and what’s going on.

On the other hand, spending time with some books is like being forced to spend time in the company of a person you have nothing in common with; someone who bores you to death or irritates the shit out of you.
Life it too short to persist with a relationship that is going nowhere so – yes - there are books I part company with, sometimes quickly.

Irritating books aside (and they are easy to bypass), reading is a magical pastime. As teacher Hector explains to student Posner in Alan Bennett’s wonderful film History Boys (2006) in a scene that never fails to bring tears to my eyes:

'The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things, that you'd thought was special, particular to you - and here it is, set down by someone else. A person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead.
And ...it's as if a hand...has come out...and taken yours.'

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