I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Monday, 28 February 2011

River Of Books


I remember exactly the time I started to read properly. I was at primary school. The class reading book was Briar Rose, an easy-reader version of The Sleeping Beauty by the Brothers Grimm. Suddenly - and it really was one of those quantum leaps, those learning-to-bike-ride moments - letter and word and sentence and meaning coalesced right in front of my eyes. A magical process, and even more wondrous as it seemed no effort at all. I think many of us know this feeling. You do the time, put in the practice, absorb the knowledge - and then, hey presto, all of a sudden a bulb's switched on in the brain, and you feel you've progressed light years in an instant. Like that yes-moment of relief when a binocular lens miraculously spins into sharp focus. Instead of swimming against a current of gibberish, I must have just relaxed and gone with the word-flow; and in  a few seconds I was paddling delightedly and easily down a river of stories which I'm still happily navigating today.

After the joys of being read to as a young child, I was now reading myself - Hans Christian Andersen, Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, AA Milne, Arthur Ransome, Kenneth Grahame, WE Johns - and I continued to read my way voraciously into adolescence. George Orwell, I remember, was the first really 'grown-up' author I tried.  I devoured anything by him I could get my hands on - not only Animal Farm and the teenage-mind-blowing Nineteen Eighty-Four, but also A Clergyman's Daughter, Keep The Aspidistra Flying, Down And Out In Paris And London and The Road To Wigan Pier. These books taught me politics, gave me a social conscience, instilled in me the importance of both individual and collective freedoms, revealed to me the stuffiness of bourgeois values and the necessity of rebellion. After Orwell the literary floodgates well and truly opened: Lawrence, Woolf, Forster, Greene, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Mann, Gide, Camus, Sartre, Kafka, Kerouac ...

Thankfully I'm still reading, despite the temporal demands of work and family and life and trekking and watching the latest revolutions unfold on TV; and despite irritating bits of detached vitreous humour pinballing constantly within my field of vision. In fact I've just finished the excellent book 50 literature ideas you really need to know by John Sutherland. But more of that later ...

(Header painting of Briar Rose by Sir Edward Burne-Jones)

18 comments:

Friko said...

I seem to have been reading for all of my life, there is no particular moment where reading suddenly made sense that I can now remember.
I can remember some of the children's stories (they'd have been in German) but I very soon got into adventures, travel and distant lands and peoples, my favourites then.

The world of books was my world, I read and read; I had very few friends throughout my childhood or early adolescence, books were my friends; I can almost say that I lived through them.

Should have stuck with books instead of people, I'd have saved myself a lot of heartache, until I learnt enough to negotiate my way through reality.
Now that I've managed that, I am back in the world of books and writing.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Friko - that was very honest, and heartfelt, and very 'you'.

People, the 'real' world, on the one hand - and, on the other hand, books: ultimately a 'fantasy' world, which, nevertheless, informs and illuminates the so-called 'real' world? Yes, of course, there's a satisfying and necessary balance between the two - a negotiation, if you like.

People, and the 'real' world can indeed mean heartache - but a real, visceral heartache, rather than an imagined, manipulated, 'bookish' one... and give me that lived reality, painful as it is, every time ...

I think Rilke would have something to say about this ...!

Thanks again for your valued comment.

Timecheck said...

Anne Dillard - I know I'm supposed to like her, but it doesn't come easily. Still, you managed to capture her essence with your quote.

The Solitary Walker said...

Hey, how's this for another instance of blogging synchronicity! Twenty minutes ago I caught an episode of a book serial on the radio. The prose was beautifully weighted, elegantly sparse. My first thought was Annie Dillard. But I knew it wasn't quite her style. I found out shortly afterwards the book was by Annie Proulx, and the book 'Bird Cloud', her recent memoir.

Marianne said...

I can't remember learning to read but have been reading daily and with great pleasure ever since. I love both Annies - Proulx and Dillard. The Maytrees is one of my all time favourites.

Yes, I learned some of what Friko calls 'negotiating her way through reality' through reading; expanding my experience and wisdom vicariously. Transferring skills... Sometimes I can get lost in the circles of my own emotional life, only to find the way out through another's writing, when I least expect it.

Ruth said...

Beautiful image with this great post!

It is clear from your writing that you are well read. I don't say that to embarrass you with flattery. But I can tell that you have acquired what you've read. I've learned not to be too ashamed of the fact that I don't read much. There are probably many reasons for my lack of reading, but I won't go into them now. I was an English major, so that isn't the reason, surely. I read more during college than I have otherwise. I want to read, but there is a fixed wall between me and it. I am stalled in War & Peace, even though I love reading every word. I don't know what the disconnect is. It's difficult to come home from a draining day of work and keep my eyes open long enough to read, that's one excuse.

I feel myself shifting about novels. For some time I have not had an interest in them, feeling that the author can always just make up whatever she/he wants, and somehow that has felt false to me. But the more I read (yes, in small doses), and the more Inge and I discuss novels (which she reads voraciously), I am coming to see that they do contain real life stories from the author's experience, very often.

I agree that people relationships can be difficult, and are where the real work is. Often, though, books inform how I relate to people, and vice versa.

Ruth said...

Oh, and I learned to read on my sisters' laps during evening devotions. They would run their fingers across the Bible verses as others read them aloud, and after a while I associated the sounds with the letters and words.

ksam said...

Wow...I remember being chastised in 1st grade...being in the "slow" reading group (never mind that I should have been in Kindergarten not 1st grade!) and then the slow progress. The final aha moment came at 7 when I'd finished my allowed one book from the library within 1/2 an hour of getting home. From that day forward I took home stacks and stacks every week. (And began stealing my parents bedside books shortly there after!) I find now I get very edgy when I don't have a min of two books around to read at any given moment!

The Solitary Walker said...

Marianne - I've read some of Dillard, whom I love, but I've never read any Proulx. I've come across her, much praised, in reviews - and, of course, through the films 'The Shipping News' and 'Brokeback Mountain'. Must read! Thanks for visiting.

Ruth - thanks, as always, for your welcome comments. Not really sure about 'well read' - I think many of my readers are far more 'well read' than me - the more I read, the more I realise I haven't read, and the more I feel I know absolutely nothing! Actually, I intend to develop this idea about how to deal with this massively increasing wealth of information and knowledge available to us now in the next post ...

I like your thought about acquiring what one reads, rather than just reading it.

Me too re. 'War and Peace' - I love it to bits, but I keep putting it down for other things ...

I read far fewer novels now than I did years ago. I tend to pick up travel books, books on religion and philosophy, history (which I never used to read at all) ... though poetry remains constant.

For me 'real' life and 'real' adventures always trump written accounts - though my life would be infinitely the poorer without the latter.

And thanks to you too, Karin, as ever, for your enthusiastic comment! Books are such a wonderful escape, solace and addiction - and beams of light on our lives and the lives of others.

Elisabeth said...

It seems a wonderful moment, that fist recognition of a new achievement. I can remember many things but not the day I learned to read, though I have a memory of the letters of the alphabet scattered along the walls of a classroom when I was very young -pre-school - and a vague memory of wondering whether I would ever be able to understand them. Yours looks to be a delightful blog. I'm pleased to meet you here, from far off australia.

Dominic Rivron said...

I have very little memory of early reading and, looking back, although I learned to read young, I'm not sure what I read. Certainly Arthur Ransome. I found poetry more interesting than prose - partly, I suspect because it was shorter but also, I like to flatter myself thinking, because its form was often more akin to music than prose.

The first "grown up" novel I remember reading was probably Maurice by EM Forster or Justine by Durrell - I forget which way round they came. I read the books you have to read for school. Straight novels really weren't my thing though. I enjoyed reading plays and read a lot of Shaw's for some reason. I tried the Wake, and got as far as page 2. I do remember reading Asimov's Foundation (as it was then) Trilogy and non-fiction - the Communist Manifesto springs to mind. I probably spent the time you spent reading listening to a lot of music.

Dan Gurney said...

Gee, Robert, I was MUCH older before I could read well enough to enjoy reading. Reading was very, very difficult—and seldom enjoyable—for me all the way through school, even into early college years.

I think that's one good reason why I became a reading teacher (essentially that's what I do): because I want to experience at least vicariously the joy you describe reading Sleeping Beauty.

Grace said...

Trying hard, but . . . just . . . can't remember the first "grown-up" book I read. It's great that you can.

Helen Fisher said...

I don't remember the act of learning to read, nor that moment of consciousness when it became part of me. But I did read voraciously as a kid in Norfolk in the middle of nowhere with very few people around anyway. I remember the acute sadness when a book would finish and my new found friends had gone.
This continued into my teens and beyond though curiously now I find I have steered away from fiction and instead am enjoying Dillard's Pilgrim, and that damn synchronicity is at play again! Yes, I've been tuning into Bird Cloud too and have reserved it at the library. I adored The Shipping News and it gave an extra layer to the film - which don't seem to compete in my mind for superiority.
I don't visit every time you write, but I would like to say that when I do I am richly rewarded. Thank you Robert.

am said...

"River of Books" is a wonderful post!

Now that you mention it, I can recall one of my early moments in learning to read. I can remember sitting on a chair in a small circle of other children and our teacher in a classroom and being able to read out loud, but I cannot recall what we were reading. Probably the books about Dick and Jane and Spot,

"See Spot run!"

My first memories of going to the library with my mother and sisters must have been when I was 7 years old. I can remember reading books about Snipp, Snapp and Snurr and the books by Dr. Seuss. Many of my best childhood hours were spent in the world of books. I still spend some time each day in that world.

I think you might like this celebration of books:

http://www.medialiagallery.com/artists/Rotolo/Rotolo.html

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for your fantastic comments - Elisabeth, Dominic, Dan, Grace, Helen and am. I do appreciate them.

More Than Meets the I said...

I remember when I started reading whole sentences: it was at the beginning of my second year in Primary school ( I was 7). Strangely enough, I can almost photographically recall the details of the Greek fairy tale (the font was a little too small for a beginner to read and it had very few illustrations in black and white). As a child and a teenager I was a voracious reader. At the age of 15 I started reading unabridged novels in English and French...and have never given up since! I am ashamed of the fact that I am more read in foreign languages than in my mother tongue, but lately I have started reading more poetry in Greek.
P.S. I love the Briar Rose Series, and Burne-Jones. It is the study of the Pre-Raphaelites that fuelled my passion for art 6 years ago :)

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your comment, More Than Meets The I.