The Guardian Online has a ‘Bookmarks’ weekly newsletter to which I subscribe. Once every few weeks or so it runs an article called ‘Books that made me’ where they ask a well-known published writer a series of book-related questions, such as which books influenced them, or made them laugh, or which ones they’re ashamed not to have read, and so on. One question is ‘What is your comfort read?’
Edna O’Brien, author of Country Girls (and many other brilliant novels since) was a recent interviewee and she had a reply to that question which resonated strongly with me in two ways. Firstly, her initial response was the opposite of mine: “I do not read for comfort”, she answered, whereas I frequently turn to books for just that purpose. But then she added, “I read to be quickened, enlightened and brought to the frontiers of feeling.” Reading that, I was quite overcome for several seconds as memories flooded over me as if it was my moment of death when one supposedly re-lives every minute of one’s life. But I remained alive after I re-visited every book I’d ever read that had left me weeping, or stunned, or overjoyed, or angry, or simply deeply reflective – usually about some aspect of the human condition. So many times books have indeed brought me to ‘frontiers of feeling’. So many times have I crossed that frontier and entered new, unchartered territory. O’Brien’s response to that simple question also brought me to a new and different frontier of something else in my life.
I have been trying for several years to find a way to write my autobiography. It’s not that I can’t begin: I have several thousand words for each of several different potential autobiographies, each with a different theme or focus. For an ordinary woman living an ordinary life, I seem to have had rather a lot of adventures, and, however I frame my life, I’m sure I’ve had more than the average number of jobs in a range of contexts, with two – or arguably three – of those being ‘careers’, rather than just ways to earn money to live. I’ve moved house over 30 times, and lived in family, house-sharing, intentional community, and solo situations, including a ‘lady in the van’ occasion. I also have a wide range of interests which has led me to take many different courses – from degree level to weekend workshop type events, or simply to follow up my own lines of research. I seem to have a high level of need for change and for new experiences. I have been described as “forever going off at a tangent” or “taking too many leaps of faith” or just the usual cliche of having “a butterfly mind”. It’s certainly true that apart from having my son and daughter when I was in my early twenties, and maintaining a lifelong connection to the natural world, nothing has remained constant in my life. This has been particularly so for the last twenty years, when everything seems to have speeded up, rather than slowed down – which it’s supposed to do in the ‘later years’! But finding a way to structure all this to form a readable account of my life – apart from the obvious chronological which I have always rejected – has so far eluded me.
But I realised, with O’Brien’s response, that not only has there been another constant – my love of books and reading – but that my life has repeatedly led me to books, or books have repeatedly led me into another, new, stage of my life. One glorious virtuous circle. My life in one sentence is this: I have lived it – and continue to live it – by bringing myself to those frontiers of feeling. The feelings have been excruciatingly painful or full of joy or anything in between, but they are, for me, what makes life worth living. I have decided that I will organise this telling of my life around significant reading stages, and around significant books or other cultural events inspired by a book that someone has written. But a brief chronological outline first…
I had the most idyllic childhood. I had several siblings, a trusty dog, and was a member of the best gangs. This was in the days when a gang was a small group of young children making dens, climbing trees, wading streams and such, and the worst crimes committed were apple scrumping or getting your best shoes wet. This was in the days when a password meant entry into the gang’s secret woodland den or the dusty shed at the bottom of someone’s garden, behind the rhubarb and potatoes. With my friends or with loving, supportive parents and other avuncular relatives, I went rowing and swimming on rivers and lakes, I explored forests, alpine meadows, jungles, high moorland and underground cave systems. The whole natural world was available to me. And when not with others, I ran alone and wild in nature, climbing yet more trees, damming streams, eating leaves and berries and poking small dead animals with a stick.
In consensus reality terms, only the last sentence of that paragraph is true. I actually had a strange and solitary childhood with no siblings, few extended family members, and not allowed friends. When allowed out to play – my mother liked me by her side, and I was somewhat of a slave to her strict housework regime too – I would wander for hours on end in the woods, fields, and river banks around my home. My friends were the animals and plants of the natural world, and certain other creatures who might be called imaginary friends, though they looked nothing like human beings.
And when I wasn’t doing housework, or out playing, I would read. That’s where my idealised childhood of the paragraph above originates. In my reading life, I was a member of the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, and any other gang described in any of the books I read. My siblings and friends were the girls and boys in Little Women, Swallows and Amazons, The Railway Children, The Borrowers, the William books, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and many more. Such adventures we had, in our gangs, or sibling groups, or with those loving parents or kindly relatives who took us to exciting places, showed us marvellous things, fed us picnics and allowed us to stay up late, camping outside in the garden, with torches and blankets around our shoulders.
Of course, there were tough times too: I was very scared out with Pip in the misty convict-ridden Fens; and with Mary following the crying noises in the dark corridors of Thistlethwaite Manor: though the garden did make up for the frightening house. I was confused by my experiences down the rabbit hole, and like Heidi, I wept when I had to leave the Almsfather’s house with its starry canopy and hay bale bed. But generally, the worlds I entered when I opened a book were exciting, enriching, and enlightening experiences for me. I’m sure the joy and sense of inclusivity I achieved via my reading was a positive and healing part of my childhood and set up a way of being I continued – and will continue – for the rest of my life.
We speak sometimes of reading for pleasure (perhaps the Guardian’s ‘comfort read’) as ‘escapism’ – and I certainly needed to escape from aspects of my childhood – but that does assume there is only one true reality from which to escape. I favour a more allowing, expansive view of comfort reading: it’s not just a narrow road leading nowhere other than taking me away from here temporarily, but a spaghetti junction of routes to take me there, or there, or there, and not just for now, but for as long as I like… not only because there’s always another significant book to read, but because reading makes me aware of other opportunities, other ways of being, other ways of living.
Although I have always read, almost every day for nearly seventy years, there have been two other life stages after childhood where I have read extensively: which for me means having several books on the go at once, and spending several hours a day (occasionally whole days, even into the night) reading.
The second stage was when I became a full time student in my early thirties, taking a BA in English Literature and Language, and going on to become an English teacher. The term ‘reading’ for a degree has never seemed more apt. My children painted a skull and crossbones on the study door with the inscription “Danger Mum Reading”.
The third stage was a decade or so later when I left teaching to retrain in counselling and psychotherapy, and to take another BA in Psychology. As well as the obvious obligatory essential texts, I read more biographies and autobiographies than previously, and I also devoured accounts from both practitioners and clients or patients about the psychotherapeutic process.
And here I am in the fourth stage right now. I no longer have children to look after, property to maintain, or have to work to earn a living, so I have more so-called ‘free’ time. I describe myself these days as ‘gone feral’: returning to the nature of my childhood and once again wandering around fields and woodlands, along river banks, looking for birds, wildflowers, and anything else that nature reveals to me. Though there is rather less tree climbing nowadays.
A few years ago I took an MA in Creative Writing with a focus on nature, so as well as writing my own nature adventure stories, my reading includes a great deal of natural history, nature-themed memoir and other books which form part of the ‘New Nature Writing’ genre.
And re-reading continues too… that’s where the comfort reading comes in: I love a book I have a level of familiarity with, and can appreciate the narrative arc without being gripped by the need to know what happens next. Or – perhaps particularly re-reading poetry – I can enjoy the writer’s skill with language manipulation. Or I can re-read to re-engage with those frontiers of feeling I chose not to cross at the time – or did cross, but find them appearing once again in my life. A book from the past can often be a mentor in the present.