One day during my internship in a publishing office, a group of local primary school kids visited to see what working in an office was like. The kids were part of a really good scheme the company does called reading partners, where employees go into the school every couple of weeks to read with the kids. After showing them around and watching them shout across the office at one another pretending to be on the phone (‘Hello? YOU’RE FIRED, HA HA HA!’) we took them into the board room for biscuits, orange juice and a question and answer session. I asked the boy next to me if he had any questions. He looked rather bewildered, and after thinking for a minute managed to come up with one:
‘Do you have a TV?’
I meant questions about publishing, but since I wasn’t sure any of the kids really understood what publishing was, I decided to go with this line of questioning. ‘Um, yes,’ I said. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Because she doesn’t,’ the boy replied, pointing to the woman who was his usual reading partner. She rolled her eyes in exasperation, and he giggled. Obviously they’d had this conversation many times before.
‘I don’t need a TV to have fun!’ the woman said.
This idea was so shocking that the boy almost spat out his mouthful of jaffa cake. ‘But, but… What do you do?’ he said, eyes popping.
‘Well… I read books.’
‘But – why would you want to read a book?’
I was flabbergasted, and also very sad, that he’d ask that question – but thinking about it, it is a difficult one to answer. Why would you want to read a book? What’s the appeal of thousands of lines of ink on a wad of paper when there are Xboxes and Playstations and Wiis and Nintendos, computer games and Facebook and Twitter, brightly-coloured hyperactive cartoon shows and movies with big explosions and toilet humour to keep children occupied? Buy a TV licence and you’re sorted: you don’t have to spend £7.99 every time your child finishes a book and wants a new one. I completely understand it, but it’s a real shame. That little boy’s attitude represents an endemic: kids just aren’t reading as much anymore, and it’s largely because their parents aren’t reading with them. On the train home from London one day this summer, I read this article in the Evening Standard, which revealed that apparently one in five parents in London aren’t confident enough readers to read to their children. I can’t vouch for how reliable those statistics are, but if that’s anything like the truth, it’s disturbing. If the parents can’t read properly, their children barely stand a chance – and they’re missing out on something incredible. It’s like having Narnia at the back of your cupboard but never bothering to open the doors and find out.
This isn’t going to be a rant about the failure of the education system, because I don’t know enough about that. I just want to explain, or rather describe, why I feel so sad when I meet a child who doesn’t like reading, or who doesn’t realise that any books exist outside of Harry Potter and Twilight (though at least they’re a start). When I think of my childhood, the first thing I think of is reading. The books I read as a child made me who I am now, and I don’t just mean that they made me want to study English and work in publishing: they formed my personality, my opinions, my hopes and desires, the way I think, act and speak. Maybe some of the books I read gave me unrealistic expectations about life, and maybe reading so much made me a little too fond of my own company. Certainly reading has destroyed my vision. But books also taught me literacy; they taught me about history, geography and other cultures, about the world outside of my own privileged little sphere of life, about growing up; they fired my imagination and inspired me to write myself; in short, they filled my childhood with magic. I was never bored if there was a pen and some paper nearby, and I didn’t need expensive games consoles to entertain me. Even a rock in my garden could become the magical object of a quest, a dragon’s egg or a precious jewel, and reading is what taught me to think in that way.
It isn’t just the books themselves that I remember with such fondness. It was the whole experience of reading that exhilarated me. My mum would take me shopping, and I’d beg to go in the bookshop: please, please, please can I have a new book? I’d beeline to the children’s section at the back of the shop, with the rocking horse and the big saggy chair and the rows and rows of brightly coloured spines along the shelves, the tables with books piled up in jagged mountains, some of the covers shiny, some of them tactile, some that changed in the light when you tilted the book from side to side. I’d read blurb after blurb, torn by the fact I was only allowed three, usually picking the ones that sounded the most adventurous and fantastical. After an hour I would emerge from the shop beaming, having been treated to a big stack of new books. New book smell was my favourite smell (it has now been usurped by old book smell, though it’s a close competition between the two). I couldn’t wait until I got home; I’d start reading one in the car home, which would inevitably make me carsick. I remember once I actually was sick when I got out of the car – then I went up to my room and continued reading.
I’d read for hours and hours on end, and finish each book in a matter of days, sometimes a single day. When I finished one book in a series, I’d want the next one, and the next and the next, and once I’d finished the series I’d feel momentarily lost, as if all my friends had suddenly packed up and moved to Australia. Then I’d find another series, and my imaginative world would be repopulated with new friends. Of course, books are expensive, and my parents could never have afforded to fuel my reading habit if it weren’t for the library. The weekly trip there, usually on a Saturday morning, was just as exciting as my forays to the bookshop. The hushed atmosphere gave it an almost sacred feel which I never dared to violate: if the parent I was with so much as breathed too loudly, I’d press my finger to my lips with an exaggerated, ‘Shhhhhhh! We’re in a library!’ I have a fetish about owning books now, but then I didn’t care that I couldn’t keep them; in fact, I loved looking at the stamps in the front cover because it told me how many other people I’d shared the adventure with. Our library had a reward system for children, so that once you’d taken out enough books you got a prize, and I quickly built up a formidable collection of little keyring-notebooks, plastic toys, bookmarks and pencils. I don’t think libraries do that anymore. Many public libraries are being closed down now (The Bookseller has a Fight for Libraries campaign if you’re interested).
Reading was such a special activity for me that I had to find special places to do it. It became more exciting if it felt like a secret, forbidden activity, as if the book were a friend I had smuggled into my house unbeknowst to my parents and was feeding my leftovers from dinner. I’d read under my duvet with a torch after I’d gone to bed, because that’s what kids do in the cartoons, even though my parents wouldn’t have cared that I was staying up reading – they were never strict about bedtime. I’d build a fortress out of clothes horses, sheets and blankets, then I’d crawl inside with my pillow, my cuddly toys, a bowl of sweets and of course a book. I’d nestle in the warm, dark space under my bed, or I’d sit on the windowsill and draw the curtain like Jane Eyre, and in the summer I’d go to the wendy house at the end of the garden and read in there until the sight of a huge spider sent me running back to the house.
What did I read? To be honest, I don’t remember more than half the books I read, and a lot of them were probably poorly written trash. When you’re that age, you don’t care about the quality of the writing. You don’t want great literature, and you don’t want to struggle through thousands of pages of dense writing, analysing and searching for social commentary and finding phallic imagery in absolutely everything. You just want a good story, one that you can devour and dispose of and then move onto the next book, to be transported from one world to another, and for a short time to be fully involved in each one of these endless worlds. Some books do stand out in my memory, though. I loved stories about animals: my favourite was a book about a boy who had a telepathic connection with an escaped panther roaming the Yorkshire moors. I ploughed my way through the Animal Ark series to the point where they started to run out of titles and become ridiculous (Koala in the Kitchen – okay then. Giraffe in the Garage – getting a bit dubious. African Wolf Spider in the Airing Cupboard…) I wanted to be a member of the Babysitters Club, and I was incredibly impressed by the fact they had their own phone line. I absolutely adored Enid Blyton: Famous Five, Secret Seven, Malory Towers, and best of all the Faraway Tree (though now I think about it, she must have been a bit stoned when she wrote that. Every time I try and explain the character of Moon-Face to someone else I get a look as if they suspect I just made it up). Then there were the enduring classics: Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, Alice in Wonderland, What Katy Did, Heidi, Little Women, The Railway Children, The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, Winnie the Pooh, anything by Roald Dahl, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe… They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. When I got older, I moved onto the Jacqueline Wilsons, the Louise Rennisons, His Dark Materials, Artemis Fowl, Ella Enchanted, The Princess Diaries, and a wonderful and sadly underrated series called Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn, which I reread recently and still adored. Listing all these books is making me want to reread them. Listing these books is making me want to write a children’s book – and I may do, one day.
The first ‘grown-up’ book I read was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I was about ten or eleven, and didn’t understand most of what was going on, but loved it and was so proud of myself when I finished it. I then moved onto Jane Eyre. Since then, I’ve never gone back. I still devour books, but it’s not the same anymore. I have to make time for reading, on the train or before I go to bed: I don’t have time to curl up in bed and read for a whole day without getting out of my pajamas as I used to. There’s always pressure to read things that are ‘great’, and to slog through them even if I’m not enjoying them. But I still have moments when I feel transported; when a description is so beautiful I have to read it over and over again, savouring it like a posh chocolate from a selection box; when I read the last sentence of a book, close the book, put it down in front of me and stare at the wall, thinking… wow. Just wow. I’m going to make sure my children, if they ever exist, don’t miss out on that experience. I just hope the bookshops, the libraries, and the talented writers are still around to allow me to do that.