I’m a firm believer in doing nice things for yourself. Sometimes I buy myself flowers if I’m feeling a bit low, or I’ll drag myself through a couple of sun salutations if my body is feeling heavy and tired. When my mind is clouded, I’ll try and get out for a run, in the hopes feeling my heart beat faster and feeling my lungs stretch beneath my rib cage will help me figure out what’s going on in my brain. But for my whole life, the solace I have found in reading offers my soul hearty and healthy food like nothing else.
Reading is my sanctuary and always has been. My family joke that one day I’ll have so many books the walls will start to fall in, but until then, I’ll keep buying books and devouring them a page at a time. And I’ll keep noticing and being grateful for the way they impact on my life long after the last page has been turned.
I found comfort with Harry Potter when I was sick. When my brain was too tired to take in the intricacies of a new story, I pulled Harry Potter from the shelf and put the words on like they were a warm and familiar coat. I barely had to read the words to know what was happening, and returning to them in my chemo-addled state was like coming home after a long time away. JK Rowling’s words offered me safety and a chance to escape from what was going on around me that I’d never truly needed before.
The words of Mary McCarthy in The Group and Marilyn French in the Women’s Room helped me establish a big part of who I am as a woman, a reminder of what people went through before I was even part of someone’s imagination. After reading these, I went through a stage of reading fiction set in 1960’s America, demolishing Revolutionary Road and Light Years, then moving on to London pre and peri-war fiction in Norman Collins’ sprawling novel London Belongs to Me and Patrick Hamilton’s three part 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. These make up some of my favourite books of all time – and any time anyone asks for a book recommendation, they’re the first I turn to.
A Little Life; Where’d You Go Bernadette; We The Drowned; The Blind Assassin; The Secret History; The Goldfinch; The Luminaries; The American Wife; White Teeth; Americanah, We Need to Talk About Kevin; My Friend Leonard; The Goldne Notebook; The Belljar. All of these and so many, many more have stayed with me long after I’ve returned them to the shelf.
I get anxious if I’m reading a book I don’t enjoy. If my soul doesn’t have a place to rest, it gets fractious and I feel consistently on edge if I can’t sink into the paragraphs of something that makes my body and brain a better place to be.
While fiction offers me a kind of quieting, non-fiction grants me a view from a different perspective. Though I wanted to, I couldn’t get on board with the essays of Marina Keegan in The Opposite of Loneliness, whose talent was unfairly cut short. I felt it was clear that she hadn’t reached the level she really could have done with just a few more years – and the fact that she hadn’t been able to reach her potential left me on edge. Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist (current read) offers me a chance to examine someone else’s truth – someone whose life has been so very different to mine – and have it impact the way I carry out my day-to-day. Reading Girl Up by Laura Bates, about 10 years too late, made me wish someone had been able to hand me a manifesto for living like that when I had been 16. How different would my approach to my late teenage years have been if I had a bible like that leading the way? How much sooner would I have found myself comfortable saying “I am a feminist” had a writer like Bates given me the understanding and the permission I thought I needed to do so? I can’t wait to read Ctrl Alt Del by Emma Gannon when I’ve reached it in my “to read” pile and I’m building up to reading When Breath Becomes Air. Bryony Gordon’s Mad Girl is somewhere in transit on it’s way to me as we speak.
I tried to join a book club once. It didn’t go well. I didn’t like anything we read. I was critical of the characters (I just didn’t care about them), I was critical of the writing (I’m really judgemental, OK?!), I was critical of the storylines (I found them tiresome and dull). Then I recommended stuff that I loved and everyone else hated. I learned that probably, I should sometimes keep my opinions to myself, and, while sharing literature is one of my absolute favourite things, I also realised I’m a much better solitary reader than I am at reading in a pack.
Words have such an incredible power and this power is so often undervalued and underestimated. I’m reminded of that old expression “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” and I think this is naive and simplistic. Words can hurt and they can move and they can create and they can provide support and show passion and tell stories that have been previously silenced. Words are powerful and I never underestimate my privilege to be able to pick up a book and read it, let alone enjoy it.
So I want to talk more about books and words and what I’m reading. So…stand by, I guess.