Monday, 19 February 2007

The 3 R's: reading, reading and re-reading

Love of reading usually has it’s roots in our early reading experiences and the books we discovered then. Obviously, taste in reading matter grows and changes through our teenage years and on into young adulthood but sometimes, later in life, we return to the sort of books we liked when young. This was certainly so in my case.

As a child at school I read Dickens and most of the children’s classics too. And mostly I enjoyed them, although the weekly trip to the library was a treat to look forward to: this was where I got to choose. All the harmless girls-own stuff I loved and all for free. Then there were comics too, of course; another sort of anticipation and pleasure.

As a teenager I went through literary pash after not so literary pash. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were a real passion that opened the door to spy stories, fantasy and science fiction. My eldest brother introduced me to James Bond and Wyndham and I progressed to George Orwell.

That all led to more scary stuff: I became hooked on Dennis Wheatley which I read by torchlight under the bedclothes late into the night. The result was nightmares but it was so deliciously scary. However, I finally gave up on the genre when I took part in a séance with some friends and realized that maybe there was more to it all this ghost stuff than was comfortable.

I graduated to romance: Georgette Heyer and wonderful romping sagas. So much more pleasant to go to bed with. But the advent of boyfriends rendered Georgette and her like superfluous. A more serious literary phase ensued – mostly driven by school curriculum rather than any elevated taste.

Although we had to study the works of Shakespeare, Byron and Thomas Hardy these did strike a chord in most of us. However, from choice we read Lady Chatterley’s Lover (very inadequate sexual descriptions in our opinion) and JD Salinger (lots of insight into teenage angst).

Then the bright lights of London beckoned and with them Edna O’Brien: I too learned what it was like to live on pennies and could dry my tights over the gas stove with the best of them. After Edna came cheerful Monica (grand-daughter of Dickens) and then block-busting trash.

A rise in the quality of my reading matter coincided with a rise in my fortunes: my boyfriend became my husband. Suddenly everything male was in the ascendant: Hemingway, Somerset Maughan and Greene were order of the day.

Parenthood brought Fay Weldon into my life too, along with every feminist writer I could lay my hands on. This was interspersed with DH Winnacot (serious parent stuff) and Freud (more serious still) and cookery books of every type; we young women were nothing if not Catholic in our tastes.

But I finally had to stop reading much fiction when my little treasures were small because I simply couldn’t bear to put a good book down and guilt was beginning to set in (Mummy, pleeease can we have tea? Just wait till I’ve finished this chapter, darling). A similar fate befell my feminist friends: Simone sent me to sleep and the American sisterhood were making me bolshie. Neither was conducive to happy married life.

When the children were finally at school all day serious reading resumed: first came Austen, Bronte, Hardy and Dickens. The Americans (James and Wharton) and the Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) followed. Then back to the Brits: George Elliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West became new best friends.

But, finally, too set in my ways I joined a Book Group which has been very good for me. Contemporary novels are again on the agenda and, for the most part, it’s fun and stimulating. But it’s the classics that I always return to: the sort of books one can read over and over and see something different at each re-reading.


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