Is it possible to gauge the influence our reading has on us over time? Think back to the first books you read as a child, can you still remember them? Have you read those same books as an adult and still found the same ideas and images grabbing you as they did in those early days? It was my mother who encouraged my love of books, reading, and this led to writing. This is particularly important as my mum died this week, so I’ve been very introspective, thinking gratefully about her life.
I can remember her reading The Wind in the Willows and The House at Pooh Corner to me when I was a very young child. I can remember that sometimes I was bored, sometimes I couldn’t find my way through the complex language to the story inside. But I loved the story-reading process, loved the new ideas and characters, and I always longed for the next chapter, begged her not to stop reading. I can remember thinking, when I’m a grown-up I can read and read and read and no one can tel me to stop and go to sleep. (Didn’t know about Life then!) I can remember reading fairy stories from a huge colourful book to the poor guy who came to mend the boiler, when I was no more than 5 or 6. I suppose I also loved having a captive audience!
I can remember being so inspired by the stories I read that I started writing my own stories – not usually more than a page long to begin with – and not usually very interesting. Even then I had a pen name, and signed my work ‘by Sammy’. That wasn’t even one of my (many) imaginary friends, it was my own creative self.
The books that have shaped my life? I loved Treasure Island, Jane Eyre, the Famous Five, the Lone Pine Five, all the usual books that kids in the 1960s read. The Wind in the Willows taught me that children’s stories don’t have to be facile. Shakespeare’s plays taught me that I have a brain and I’m not afraid to use it. Enid Blyton’s books showed me that being nosy is a sure way to get into trouble and end up tied up in a cellar (but oh the adventure!). Many, many books taught me to believe I could write, Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Dorothy L Sayers and Patricia Wentworth taught me what I wanted to write, and that you don’t have to be highbrow or obscure to be a good writer.
I was thrilled to discover there were all kinds of works: poetry, plays, fiction, non-fiction. There were genres. I could read romance, I could read classic, I could read crime. I could read fantasy-crime from Jasper Fforde and Tom Holt. I could read J B Priestley and J M Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle and William Makepeace Thackeray. I could read translated works. There are just sooooo many books, and given time, I could read – if not all – then a pretty good number. Books made me take that leap of faith, experiment, and when things didn’t work out, I had somewhere to go to recover. If all else fails, they make a bloody big pile you can hide behind.
But over all of this, the books themselves, crowding about me like friends, took over my life to the detriment of all else – apart from my family of course 🙂 and I can honestly say that nine times out of ten, I’d sooner spend my money on a book than a bar of chocolate – and those who know me know that is really saying something.