Reading is an exquisite gift, particularly when a book impacts you in such a way that it dents the soul. Not all books do this, yet they too have their place.
Coming from a family of predominantly non-readers I was fortunate to be indulged and never censored in my choice of reading material. Earliest memories are of the ‘Golden Books’ range from the supermarket. I still remember being devastated at the ending of ‘Frosty the Snowman’ while wishing I had a friend like ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’.
My oldest friend Nat and I spent a few winters consuming the Trixie Beldon series. I still recall the method Trixie would use to memorise the details of a scene, at the time I was sure I too would need this skill when I became a detective. A love for the mystery genre took hold of Nat, while I went on to horror. In year seven there was Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot’. I was terrified, unable to sleep with the book cover facing up. I still love a psychological thriller be it a book or movie. When I need a quick fix, I pull out Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. Old nursery rhymes and fairy tales hold a particular fascination and I’ll randomly open ‘Grimm’s Fairytales’ and marvel at the truly frightful scenes we read as children. As an adult, it’s probably the only short story form that I’m regularly drawn back to.
In 1991 I bought ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis; R rated, cellophane wrapped and found on the top shelf, I was curious. There’s still a bookmark in page 247. I just couldn’t go on, this represents real horror to me.
Before the library was built at my primary school, I would spend hours in the book room. Always alone as it was the size of a small walk-in- robe and only one person would be able to fit at a time. Here I found Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’. I was captivated by the register, tone and momentum of the style even if I didn’t know it at the time. A master to be revisited.
Every now and then I’m drawn into the world of the self-help genre and Stephanie Dowrick’s ‘Finding Happiness’ is divinely positive and life affirming, living in my bedside drawer for whenever I want a fix. Aspects of Stephen Covey’s ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ have become part of my core. It’s my compound book, I absorb a little more every time I dip into it. However, it was Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the Giant Peach’ that rescued me when a junction in life rendered me unable to read for a year, allowing me to escape into the mind of a genius. Reading is so much about headspace at the time that occasionally a book chooses me, not I it. Such as it was with the cover of Catherine Therese’s ‘The Weight of Silence’. I still smile every time I see it.
I coveted Patrick White for years, yet he was a beast that eluded me until the ‘The Tree of Man.’ What sublime perfection. White fused pleasure on pleasure. While driving one day, my friend Sandy was reading some of her favourite passages, I didn’t want to reach our destination! I’m a note taker when I read. Across the page (always in pencil) you’ll find symbols, thoughts, ideas to follow up and underlined passages, I see it as my journey through a book. I almost gave up this for ‘The Tree of Man’ as just about every line needed annotating. I want a book to make me feel something, be it pain, sadness, anger, exhilaration or simple joy. White did all that.
Some years back I joined a cult book club and was introduced to science fiction, among them being the ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’. I may not voluntarily revisit this genre but I’m glad I went there. Irvine Welsch’s ‘Trainspotting’ felt like pepper being thrown in my eyes with every line, yet it didn’t take long to consume me with its wit and humour.
When I need my faith in a great story and polished writing restored, I take refuge in the classics. It’s rocks like Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ or Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’ that I revisit in my mind often.
The robust debate and controversy of ‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas was the gift that kept on giving, months of lively discussions followed.
I almost finished the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy, my thoughts mattered little as I was truly fascinated that a book could engage and consume conversations of so many men and women. Friends who I never knew to pick up a book were actually reading.
As an apartment dweller and regular traveller, the e-reader now has a firm place, but never for texts or reference material, or poetry, or Shakespeare! ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac came to me as an app and it was an immersive, interactive and sensory experience with photographs and added commentary interspersed. I now have the bragging rights to ‘Moby Dick’. I tackled this monster on a road trip, alternating between the hard copy and an audio stream. Often, I pulled the car over to read alongside the audio, a fabulous tool to combat the density of some of the prose.
My first graphic novel was ‘The Great Gatsby’ by Nicki Greensberg, what a wondrous way to add a new dimension to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. Forevermore I will visualise Daisy as a strange newborn chick and Gatsby as the elusive sea horse.
Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ was a physical experience. Hyperventilating and overcome by tears for some 20 pages, I was haunted for months. Such depth and quality of writing is like the undertow of the ocean, if you allow yourself to drift long enough it will eventually take you.
Brain clearing books are my own personal genre and at times I default to them. They don’t demand too much, they simply entertain with a story, offering the balm that we all need when our schedule gets a tad gruelling. Courtney, Picoult, Deaver, Beauman, and some more recent inductees being Moriaty and Harper.
Historical fiction is a fascinating way to passively learn. Dave Eggers, ‘What is the What’, delivered exactly what it said it would “At the heart of this astonishing, soul-wrenching novel is a true story of courage and endurance in the face of one of the most brutal civil wars the world has ever known” by providing an insight into the plight of Sudanese refugees minus the preaching works for me.
I’m not going to speculate what life would be like if I couldn’t read, there will always be a book, no matter what form it takes. With blindness running in my family I went through a phase of toying with the idea of learning braille. However, reading takes many forms and audio editions are fine too. There’s Alan Rickman reciting Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 130’ -My Mistress Eyes, or Ralph Fiennes’s reading of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ and Noel Pearson’s eulogy to Gough Whitlam is among some of the most emotive speeches ever written. Technology is improving all the time, and someone will perfect the e-reader so that it doesn’t sound so automated and that’s saying nothing about what a pleasure it is to have someone read to you, I’ll take that if that’s my lot in later years!