For I am a bookworm, have been since I was taught to read at a shockingly early age, by my grandmother. It would probably constitute child abuse now. She realized her survival depended upon it, as she looked after me when my Mum was at work. After several months of me toddling around the house after her, talking non-stop, she sat me down and gave me books. By age four, I was zipping through Andrew Lang’s ‘Fairy Tales’, and so I arrived at school already reading. They didn’t like this in Barlow’s Lane School, where I was a mixed infant in 1960. Several teachers thought I must be possessed, or that I was a fully-grown adult goblin. By the time I got to juniors it was like having Stephen Fry in the class. On being presented with “Huckleberry Finn”, the kiddies’ version with the racism and homo-eroticism carefully extracted, I yawned and said “Read it”. I was saying this so fast and so often I was starting to sound like a mating bullfrog.Of course, they didn’t believe me, and I was forced to read the blasted thing again. Meanwhile, at Fazackerly Library, my second home, the librarians were getting testy, too. I had read everything in the Children’s Section and was attempting a moustache, my Dad’s trilby, and stilts, to gain access to the Adult Section. Unconvinced, the library staff rang my Mum. “I know”, she said” She’s always been a reader.” This was an understatement. Nothing printed was safe from me. “Unsuitable” reading material was catnip to me, but my household was a wholesome one; and the raciest books around were the ones my Dad hid under his bed. They were mild by today’s standards, Irwin Shaw, Dashiell Hammett, and the occasional John O’Hara. Also, I might have been an avid reader but I was mystified by a great deal of what I read. My Mum was of the view that censorship was folly, and that I was old enough to read it if I could understand it, and if not, it would go right over my head.
Finally, and after a gruelling set of tests administered by Liverpool Education Committee, as it was then, I was given a special ticket in a different coloured cardboard. This allowed me eight books from the Adult section, with the proviso that if I became a 19th century French prostitute or the obsessed captain of a whaler, the library was not liable. Fortunately for all concerned, I became a martyr to tonsillitis, just at the point where my schoolmates were reaching the end of their collective tether and starting to save their pocket money to buy something they could kill me with, due to my vocabulary and general air of insufferability. I think the teachers would have chipped in. The next two or three years were spent as a happy invalid, high temperatures and occasional hospitalization being a small price to pay for being left alone to read myself silly. Sadly I got better and even more sadly went to a Senior school, over which I shall draw a veil, but the literary references would be drawn from Dickens, “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, and “Lord of the Flies”.I did a degree in English, but discovered that, with the exception of Anglo-Saxon, I had already read most of the syllabus, and so dedicated the next three years to decadence. Unluckily, this was Leeds in 1973, and decadence was in short supply, so it was back to Oscar Wilde and Baudelaire.
The love affair with books continues undimmed. I have a son now, an Anglo-French production (all that Zola), and he, like his peers, is a firm non-reader in both languages. I entertained fantasies when he was a baby and did like books, although mostly to eat, it’s true; of the languid, erudite, floppy-haired youth that he would become, who, shunning the sports field and the X-Box, would indulge in witty book-based banter with his decorative Mama. He took up Rugby when he was six. I offered him £20 one summer holiday to read a book. Mercenary though he is, he declined. He CAN read, we are assured, and has no trouble with words as such, but they have to be on a screen. Oh well. His hand-eye co-ordination is a marvel and his technological ability makes me, who can scarcely open a door, gasp in uncomprehending wonder. So I suppose his is the Kindle and all that’s in it. The Geeks shall inherit, and all that. I envy him the scope he and his generation will have, and the easy access to everything written, ever. But I feel a little sad that he won’t have the physical, sensual joy of actual books. The thrilling prospect of a new library in an unfamiliar town, the giddy-making scent of a fusty second-hand book shop, the weight and heft of a carrier-bag full of reduced paperbacks.
And of course, you can’t read a Kindle in the bath....