I met the love of my life at an early age.
A love that has been a constant source of joy throughout my life.
So this year, I am sending a valentine to the love of my life.
The love affair begins
My earliest memory of a novel that I read independently was a book given to me for my 7th Birthday by my Aunt; a pink, hardback version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll. I think it even had the inscription inside which ran along the lines of ‘your first proper book!’.
And it probably was one of the first proper novels I owned myself, but that was mainly because my parents’ house, a large, rambling Victorian Vicarage, was filled with books already. About 5000 of them. My Dad was even a member of the private libraries association (an ‘international association of book collectors’). As soon as I could read, there were books available – covering all genres, categories and topics.
Of course, that meant I was probably reading more ideas than my young brain could absorb from such an early age – my parents were not people to censor, and the only book I ever remember my mum asking me not to read (asking strongly, and even though she didn’t forbid it, I didn’t read it until in my 30s), was Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, and that because of the violence rather than anything else – whilst others at secondary school were reading Judy Blume, I was reading Jilly Cooper. Ahem. Looking back this was one of the many things I really appreciated about my parents and their attitude to knowledge and learning.
My parents’ books were an endless source of education and fascination for me. Why, for example, did my Dad have two copies of ‘Lampshade Making’ by ‘Christopher’? We never got the answer to that question, and when my Dad died and we left the house, my Mum kept one of them for sentimental reasons!
The dining room was full of reference books, and in the days before the internet, I used it frequently for homework. And in fact, given I did English, History and RE for my A-levels, and as Dad was a Vicar and Mum an English graduate, the house continued to provide me with helpful background material until I left home.
Developing our relationship
And there were the novels. My love of science fiction and fantasy started in that house, as my parents had an entire wall full of them. I started with Asimov and Clarke, and discovered in my early teens Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A Heinlein, a book that is one of my favourite novels still. Some of his unusual and taboo-breaking ideas have certainly contributed to a hidden streak of non-conformism (perhaps not so hidden now?!) that lies within me.
At primary school (where my Mum was once called into the head teacher’s office because I ‘read too much’ in class, and then had to broker a deal whereby I wouldn’t read until I had finished all my work), I think I may have been one of the only people in the history of the school to work my way through the whole of the myths section in the tiny library. These were an enticing matched set of about 20 books, cream covered hardbacks, that covered Greek and Roman literature as well as other ancient fantastical (to my parochial – there were less than 80 children in my whole school, from infant to age 11 – eyes) stories. I imagine they were a gift from someone to the school, as they were a luxurious item, with spines barely cracked, and I looked forward to reading them every day.
A range of venues for our dates
Another strong early memory of books is visiting the mobile library that used to visit our small village in the Essex countryside. The library would come by once a week, and I would meet with my childhood friend, John, and we would fight over the latest science fiction and fantasy, or swap notes on which we recommended, something that although we don’t see each other so often 25-30 years later, we still do over email (despite rarely living in the same country).
This early experience with mobile libraries is one of the reason, 25 or so years later, that I volunteered for a ‘books on wheels’ scheme, whereby with the closure of many of the UK’s mobile libraries, volunteers would get books out of the nearest main library and take them to those who weren’t able to get there on their own. This was a rewarding activity, although I think some of my elderly or housebound ‘clients’ enjoyed the chat as much as the books!
Later, when I started piano lessons in the local market town of Epping, I was allowed afterwards to go to the library there, a much bigger and grander library than the mobile one I was used to. I remember at first being awed by all the books. Such a feast set in front of me! In my teenage years, Dad’s team ministry office was right next to the library, so I got to go even more often.
But I also had the school library as a teenager, which allowed me access to yet more books. And when I went to university, all these previous libraries paled into comparison to the Leeds University library (and later still, the Manchester University library). But these were mainly factual books, there to help me study, not the novels and fiction I craved and loved.
Second hand bookshops were my dealers whilst at university, and friends’ recommendations helped to develop and broaden my tastes – I went through an embarrassing Mills and Boon phase (I still enjoy romance novels, which tends to surprise people when they find out), but I also discovered through housemates authors like Milan Kundera and Haruki Murakami. And I first read a Douglas Coupland book, Microserfs, which became one of my favourite books, and led me to go to a signing he did when I was visiting Toronto one year. The only other signing I have been to is Terry Pratchett, another beloved author, standing in line in Leeds for quite a while to get my signed hardback version of his latest novel.
I have to admit, I’m not always gentle with my beloved. I race through books, sucking the words into me at great speed. But never think that means I don’t care. People often question whether I read ‘properly’. But I take in every precious word, I promise (people have checked!).
A la Mode
These days, travelling the world, where any day I might be in a different city, house, hotel or country, I have a kindle. Resistant at first, I caved a few years ago when I realized one of my main sources of books, my Mum, had swapped to a kindle. When we worked out we could share an account, and therefore all the books each of us bought, I went for it as well, and my sister a while after that, with all of us now sharing one account. It probably took a couple of books before reading on the kindle became as normal for me as a paperback book. Which is not to say I don’t still love books in all their forms, but I’m not one to turn away when a lover changes their appearance. I’ll be faithful whatever the style.
Amazon tells me we have bought 401 kindle books since August 2011 when Mum opened her account, and although I haven’t read all of them (for example, the first book Mum bought was William Gladstone’s “On Books and the Housing of Them” which I haven’t yet got to…), I would say I probably have read most of them. Joining the Good Reads social network last year was good fun, as it enables me to log all the books I have read (275 since I joined in December 2012), get recommendations and widen my net, whilst also seeing what friends are reading. Plus, being quite anally retentive, I get a kick out of tracking them. If you’re interested, my Goodreads account is linked to this blog, just click on the box on the bottom right of the blog, which shows the last five books I’ve read.
What I’ve gained from our relationship
In our new blog, MDI, Mum and I have shared some of our recommended work-related books in posts about developing as a human being, understanding your personality, manage your work-life balance and the one we had the most fun with, 5 engaging novels about work. So while my heart is in fiction, I read broadly around psychology, management and self-development – which helps a lot with the work I do as an Organisational Psychologist.
Novels provide a glimpse into other worlds, and other lives. When you read, you can be anything you want to be, and live life from another viewpoint. It can expand your mind by showing you the worlds of others, real and imagined. It can develop your emotional intelligence by broadening the range of emotions and feeling states you experience. You can learn about a new topic – I recently read the astronaut Chris Hadfield’s auto-biography and loved it, even though I wasn’t especially interested in the topic before.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only once.” George R R Martin
So I’ve found it surprisingly easy to pen 1500 words on the love of my life. And I haven’t even mentioned all of my favourites authors, which might include (as well as those mentioned above): Nora Roberts, Ben Aaronovitch, Neil Gaiman, Brandon Sanderson, Anne Bishop, Laurie R King, Laurell K Hamilton, Patrick Rothfuss, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Kelley Armstrong, Patricia Briggs, Dorothy L Sayers, Kazuo Ishiguro, Lee Child, Faye Kellerman, William Goldman, Charlaine Harris, Sue Grafton, Ilona Andrews and Margaret Atwood, to name a few. An eclectic collection. And one I’d love to add to if you have recommendations for me…
Do you read? Who is your favourite author? I would love recommendations on books and authors, and to hear your thoughts about books and reading in the comments below.