Geraldine Brennan considers what makes the ideal reading conditions.
At present I can see from my desk 35 books that I should be reading. Let’s try not to use the s-word and say that in an ideal world I will have read at least 20 of them this time next week. My world is not very ideal at the moment and I feel my chest tightening in anxiety every time I look at the reading-in-progress shelf.
Meanwhile I’ve discarded around 1,000 books since the New Year. With an imminent move and the cost of storage, a cull was imperative. I have had to accept that given life expectancy and rate of new books arriving on my doormat, I am unlikely to re-read all of Dickens and Zola in the next few decades and after that I can borrow them. I’ve even given away books by very famous classic authors that I have not read and might not be going to read, ever. Big Russian books. I’m too ashamed to be more specific. Even for a book professional for whom reading has always been both easy and a source of pleasure, the whole business is not exactly anxiety-free.
What am I reading? Not any of the 35-but-20-might-do-or-maybe-10. I am torn between a proof of a young adult novel (it’s not one of the 35 because it has a publication date after my deadline so I ‘should’ be focusing on other priorities, but I was devouring it until I mislaid it around the house and I’m stopping myself finding it because I ‘should’ be reading something else) and Significant Others, a Tales of the City novel by Armistead Maupin.
I read the Tales series once every decade at least, usually at times when I have a lot going on. I’m also snatching the last longing glimpses at my favourite cookbooks before they are packed for a long absence. Elizabeth David has no place in the life of an itinerant whose batterie de cuisine is miles from her temporary billet. I can’t be bothered with food apps, even when I don’t know what to cook, but never tire of reading about the construction of the perfect omelette.
So my reading pleasure is a little tainted with guilt, but pleasure it still is. I have choice (even with 1,000 books gone, I still have every kind of book I might want to read within arm’s reach where I can see them – no need to know what I want to read first and find it online) and self-determination (nobody needs to know what I am reading and I don’t have to talk to anyone about it, but I can if I want to). These strike me as ideal reading conditions. How can they be replicated in a child’s world?
I have read for pleasure since my third year at primary school. I remember little of the books we read at school that year, I had no children’s books at home, I didn’t start reading comics until the next year and I had not yet discovered the public library that became my reading life support, but I remember being called up to the front to read a poem to the class once a week. Everyone managed to do this: six of us had a turn every day.
We were encouraged to choose a poem from the class shelf of anthologies but otherwise Miss Fox would allocate them to us. A A Milne loomed large. Hearing words that I enjoyed (‘I am Sir Brian as bold as a lion’) made me want to read more of them. There were books in the classroom that we were allowed to take to our desks, into the playground at lunchtime and finally home, although I don’t remember a school library.
Later, there were at least four books a week from the public library, a habit I kept up till my mid-twenties when I encountered higher education and a huge reading load that wasn’t available in the public library. My literature degree was my first encounter with the need for recreational reading alongside required reading. I borrowed my recreational reading from friends who had jobs and bought books: Armistead Maupin and Robert B Parker’s Spenser novels were read up to the wire as finals loomed and The Faerie Queene by the other Spenser never quite got finished.
Being given access to even a limited choice of books in early life led me to other ways of making choices: evening classes, connections with book-loving friends, reading groups before reading groups were semi-official, before bookshops stayed open late and served coffee, before World Book Day.
Having enough books to make a choice means you’ve got your own secret seam to mine alongside the books you need to read, and even want to read, but about which you need to report to someone else. Readers need to dabble and diversify, tweet about their reading if they want to or hug their books in secret if they prefer, and read whatever they love aloud (song lyrics, limericks, A A Milne, Shakespeare’s sonnets) even when nobody is listening.
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education, regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.