I have a confession: I have a lot of books. It feels like I have always had a lot of books.
Most of the ones I grew up with were inherited. Many had stained cloth covers or pictures of perfectly groomed girls who went to boarding schools, but I read and re-read them all. I was an indiscriminate reader, as happy with the stories in the Arthur Mee encyclopedias as I was with my ladybird books, Enid Blyton, Georgette Heyer or the pulp fiction I bought at jumble sales.
As soon as it became known that I was ‘a reader’ books flowed into my life. They did not just arrive for Christmas or my birthday, I became a drop off point for unwanted volumes. These were usually dusty, with damage to the cover or fly-leaf. My main supplier was my Grandfather, who trawled junk shops and auctions for bargains. In this way, I began to build a substantial and varied library.
Luckily, my parents saw this as a good thing. They supplied me with extra shelves as required, and so, despite occasional suggestions that I might have outgrown Dick and Jane books, my collection grew. I waded through dense Victorian novels as enthusiastically as I gorged on fairy tales, and stacked them all neatly into my wall of books.
If a story had hooked me I carried that book about. When it was really good I read under the desk during lessons; on the school bus (despite my motion sickness) and as I walked around. Most of those books I forgot soon after starting the next one, but some were powerful. Robinson Crusoe was read amongst the daisies on the lawn and Lorna Doone belongs to a wet autumn afternoon curled up in the armchair. I could list more.
I held onto those books for a long time, because for a long time my love of stories was confused with my enjoyment of the object. I liked turning the page. There were qualities to admire, even in the cheapest editions. Tissue thin pages and tiny print meant a substantial story; pages as thick as blotting paper with large heavy lettering meant a quick read. Remember, I did say I was an indiscriminate reader.
All of this reading was certainly connected with my secret desire to write, but as my teachers observed, being a ‘good reader’ did not improve my spelling, punctuation or grammar. Instead, I was an excellent day-dreamer and a poor scholar. Of course, my teachers had no idea I had a secret ambition. Schools teach us to read for meaning, and that is a broad and sensible ambition for the majority. I left school with a faint feeling that something had been missed out.
I continued to expand my library, but my writing stumbled. It took more than one creative writing course for me to understand that I had been taught how to read as a reader, when I needed to read as a writer. I resisted knowing it. I was good at reading, and I liked writing stories, so how could reading possibly be my problem.
Someone had the answers, and I hoped they had written a book.