As part of my creative recovery journey, I’ve been trying to get back into reading. Stephen King says firmly that:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
(Stephen King, On Writing)
What the Great Man says has to be right, yeah? So, if I want to write again, I need to resume reading.
I have to confess that in recent years, while I’ve been in dementia-survival mode, I’ve been reading for the purposes of distraction or survival. Which means I’ve either been reading comforting, funny novels, most of which I’ve read before i.e. Terry Pratchett, or self-help. Or an awful lot (and I mean an awful lot) of fanfiction! Now, as I emerge from the dark shadow, I need to remember what the hell a novel actually looks and feels like.
In working this out, I thought it might be useful to consider my history as a reader. I have to admit that since I learnt to read as a child, I have been a complete addict. I was the kid that had read the back of the cornflakes packet so often, I knew it by heart. I devoured books. I spent so much time lying on my bed reading that the neighbours believed my mother locked me in my room rather than allowed me out to play! But I didn’t want to go out to play. I wanted to read Monica Dickens, and Enid Blyton’s ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clares’ books. I adored Tove Jansson.
My parents encouraged me. My mother was a voracious reader who introduced me to Jane Austen and the Brontes. My father read to me most nights when he got home from work, and if he was travelling for his job, which he did often, he recorded episodes on an old cassette tape player for me to listen to every night – oh, how I wish I still had those episodes of him reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and doing all the voices!
So it was not surprising that I wanted to do an English degree for the sheer pleasure of spending three years reading. There I discovered Virginia Woolf and Hemingway.
In my twenties, as I recovered from the rigours of academic analysis of texts, I was introduced to Terry Pratchett, whose common sense wisdom and humour left me in a kind of ecstatic daze. I read Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel, Garrison Keillor and Laurence Durrell. And then I discovered Alice Hoffman’s early works, and was dazzled. This was what writing should be, I thought.
In my thirties, powered by the reading list I received as part of my Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, I ventured into new territories. Margaret Atwood, Helen Dunmore, Pat Barker, Iain Banks, Tracy Chevalier, and Michael Cunningham all delighted me.
But eventually, my illness caught up with me. ME/CFS has created neurological symptoms for me that have caused me trouble with my language skills. For a long time, I struggled to read at all. Words jumped all over the pages. I couldn’t remember what the start of a sentence was when I got to the end of it. I would stare at the words for hours, recognising the shapes, knowing I ought to know what they meant, but unable to grope for the meanings. The occupation that had once been a joy to me became misery. No longer able to concentrate, my fiction reading fell away. I fought on, but tended to concentrate on history, and more self-help books, because I could read them in short bursts. Later, I began a slow recovery, and I read fanfiction because it was easy.
Clearing my late mother-in-law’s home since her death in September has reminded me of how much joy we shared in our reading. She too was fascinated by books, and we often swapped volumes. I remember going with her to see P.D. James, Colin Dexter and Alan Bennett speak. Alzheimers sadly robbed her of the ability to read early on, but she was still passionate about buying books right up until her death, even though she didn’t know what to do with them anymore. In sorting through her belongings, we have been faced with a gargantuan mountain of much loved volumes she treasured, a monument to a life spent reading for the sheer joy of it.
It was one of her final gifts to me that boxes of dusty Agatha Christie, Ngiao Marsh and Margery Allingham volumes reminded me that reading was something I also loved. I will forever be grateful that she has given me back the delight in novels that I had forgotten. I plucked a couple of C.J Sansom books out of her stash and waded in.
And it was wonderful.
So I set the intention to resume reading fiction.
Does any of this feel familiar to you? Could you tell your own story of a reading life somewhat derailed by life? Do you remember a time when you consumed books like other people get through teabags, when nothing made you happier than to get to the end of a doorstop-sized novel, having lived it every step of the way? Are those days long gone for you now?
In the next post, I will tell you how I managed to reinstate good reading habits, so that you can do it too if, like me.
Happy Creating – and Reading!