A book at bed time, bath time, bus time . . .
I can clearly remember learning to read. It was agony. The summer before I was due to start school, I was introduced to a little primer and began the arduous process of sounding out letters. I laboured so long over one of the pages that I learnt it off by heart. Cue great excitement among the adults, until they turned the page, and of course I couldn’t decipher a word of that one. Then, a few days later, something clicked, brain and eyes fell into alignment, and I was away. (Sadly, after ten years of trying to learn to read music, I’m still waiting for that click.)
As with many of the things that children are encouraged to learn – walking, talking – I pretty soon managed to turn it into an annoyance: never there when I was wanted, never answering when I was called, because I was deep in a book.
The first book that I remember reading was Our Island Story, by Henrietta Marshall. I gather it’s now considered to be the most appalling load of jingoistic eyewash, but I was enthralled. Here were clear-cut goodies and baddies, and jewel-like coloured plates, including a heart-rending picture of the princes in the tower, complete with flaxen curls and tears glistening in the corners of their eyes while an axeman type lurked on the stone steps outside their chamber. The only problem was, grown-ups kept telling me to close the book and go outside to enjoy the summer sunshine and fresh air!
In the weeks between school and university (is summer reading always the most vivid?), I read The Lord of the Rings and the Gormenghast trilogy and emerged blinking into the real world in late September, trying to readjust. I don’t care if intellectual snobs sneer at The Lord of the Rings – I maintain it’s well-written, full of subtleties and surprises: the social satire about the Sackville-Bagginses, and the chillingly pervasive unease that swirls around the ride to Bree.
But I stopped having a book on the go when I had small children, a job – and a short commute. It was all I could do to finish the Sunday papers over the week. Luckily a kind neighbour rescued me by inviting me to join her book group, but it took me a while to build up my reading speed and stamina again.
In fact, work is the curse of the reading classes. A colleague, noticing me putting my book in bag in the lift one day, said: ‘It’s terrible, isn’t it: that moment when you have to close your book and put it away for the rest of the day?’ But the corollary of that is the feeling of release and intense pleasure when you get it out again on the way home and slip back into the narrative.
So, as it’s a good few weeks since damesnet had a list, here are five books that have stayed with me. No doubt I’ve read others that are as well-written, or more ambitious, but these are the ones from which scenes and words continually come back to me.
South Riding, Winifred Holtby. Fantastic female characters, and who knew local government could be so interesting? (I can’t help thinking that if she’d been a man, this would have taken its place in ‘the Canon’.)
Ingenious Pain, Andrew Miller. The first time I’ve cried at a book since Beth’s demise in Louisa May Alcott’s Good Wives over half a century ago.
The Great Meaulnes, Alain Fournier. The enchantment never fails.
The Divided Kingdom, Rupert Thompson. Britain in a dystopian future – deeply moving yet not without humour, all told in Thompson’s enigmatic, deadpan prose.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Attwood. No explanation needed.
I’m always on the look-out for undiscovered titles, so please send us your nominations for ‘damesbooks’.