Reading: a cautionary tale

Reading is dangerous. Addiction to books – expensive and time-consuming. Keep your kids away from books. Or they will fall in love with them and nothing will drag them back to Snapnite, Instabook, and drugs anymore.

My first book

I really wish I could remember more than that it was a kids’ book. Large print, illustrations, etc.

Every evening my Mum would sit with me and read me a book. Those were Communist days, which – you don’t see it coming – meant that there were PLENTY of books, they were cheap, subsidised by government, and a print run of 50 thousand meant the publisher was testing the waters. There was a series of kids’ books called “Poczytaj mi, Mamo” (“Read to me, Mom”) available. I had them all, as in all six or so, and Mum had to suffer through the same ones over and over again. I was a regular Calvin, knowing when she skipped even one word, and she worked two jobs. Eventually she got frustrated, told me “you know each of those books by heart, there’s no need to read them for you” and left me alone.

She was right – I really knew those books by heart. I quickly figured out how letters corresponded with phonems, then with words, and pretty soon I was reading other books. I didn’t know this was unusual – or that there were books that were not suitable for humans my age. I was four years old.

Communism provided lots of books, art, entertainment of really high intellectual calibre, all of it subsidised. What it didn’t provide was enough food. My grandma told me much later that she would go to a store, see a queue of 30 people, then loudly announce “MY GRANDSON CAN READ”. The four-year-old me would then stand in the middle of the store, fascinated people insisting I can’t do it and handing me random things – I was reading articles aloud about how amazing Communism was, recipes, didn’t matter – while my grandma, undisturbed, did her shopping. Then we’d leave, me – happy with the praise, grandma – happy with the shopping she’d done without anybody even noticing. All we had to do was not go to the same store twice in a row.

I was very popular at school…

My stepfather read sci-fi and fantasy, Mum – historical romances, Grandma – cozy mysteries/crime. I would read about genocides of alien species, musketeers saving France from itself, orgies, poisons, all sorts of drugs, betrayals at the age of 6. Nobody noticed I was going through the entire home library until it was too late. I was skipping all sex scenes, because why read about people being in bed/on the kitchen table/at a space station/in the bushes doing something ewww-y when there were ROBOTS who SHOT LASERS at each other ten pages further?

Once my family did finally realise that my ability to read wasn’t limited to those ten kids’ books and articles about Gorbatschev, or whoever ruled the Soviet Union then, I started getting books all of my own. The Narnia Chronicles. Hobbit. Everything by Andre Norton, as stepdad decided this was the sort of fantasy suitable for someone my age, making me a feminist forever without knowing. I was allergic to sports, both fat and hungry all the time due to hormone imbalance, but mostly too smart and openly confused – how could someone need to read three words 20 times to get the meaning? Can’t they just grab a book?

I guess it won’t come as a surprise that I was bullied at school. I was smart enough to know the answers to all teachers’ questions, sometimes before they finished asking them. I wasn’t smart to understand that it wasn’t wise to marvel loudly at the fact that another kid needed to study at all, never mind an entire weekend, to barely pass the math test. They hated me and I couldn’t figure out why. I just felt that something was wrong with me, so I’d hide in my room, open a book, then hide in that book.

#LibraryLife (a bit like #ThugLife, but cooler)

When I was around fifteen, we had three library cards. Each card entitled you to rent six books. My brother, eight years old, didn’t read much, but had a name we could put on the card. So the total was 18. I’d go every week, take 15 books for myself, three for Mum, then return next week for a new load. I didn’t discriminate, just going largely in alphabetical order through everything, which is why I know a lot of Latin-American writers whose surnames start with the letters A-D. (This is not a joke.) As I got older and got my first job, I spent a lot of time at bookstores, methodically checking all new releases, then spend half of my salary of them, already feeling all warm and fuzzy from just touching my new babies.

And then a disaster struck.

Al Gore invented Internet.

It took me a while to realise I no longer had enough attention span to read a book. Oddly, I discovered that while watching a movie – Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Edge of Nervous Breakdown. I paused it to check an actress’s name. Play. Pause – what is this painting on the wall? I’d love a reproduction. Ooh, while I’m at it, let’s check the artist’s Wikipedia page… ah. Movie. Play. Pause – hey, this actress was in something else, what was it? Must know! OK, cool… etc. Halfway through the movie I realised I wasn’t sure what it was about.

At that time I no longer really bought any books. Sometimes, when my favourite writer would have something new out – I always had time for a new Marian Keyes book and still do. But apart from Keyes, or unexpected finds by Cortazár, or Michael Cunningham I… yeah, Internet forums, mailing lists, news articles, TV series with episodes short enough not to bore me, magazines took less of my time and I got to consume more. I suffered from major FOMO. If there was a news article about a woman who gave birth to a six-headed alpaca, you bet I’d read that…

Years passed. Books came out. I ignored them. Because there was Scrabulous, dating sites, Yahoo! News, MySpace. Who had time for books?

Tolkien saved me.

I bought Lord of the Rings when I was still a kid. It took me a long time to read Lord of the Rings, because it opens with “Concerning Hobbits”, and I thought it was going to be 1200 pages about hobbitses’ habitses. There was no Google *pauses to wait out the gasps*, or Goodreads, or Facebook. I finally managed to read Lord of the Rings around the age of 16-17, then to my shocked surprise found a copy of Silmarillion. Just one, with some pages printed upside down, I cut them out and reinserted correctly. And then I hated it, because it read like a phone book. Feanor had 59 sons, whose names I shall list here now. Listen carefully, cos I shall say dis only once. By the way, none of those names will appear anywhere else EXCEPT ONE which will be super important, but I’m not telling you which one, just memorise them all before we move to Feanor’s 48 daughters. 

I was in my late 20s when I found that copy of Silmarillion and giggled at the upside-down pages. Then I started reading it and couldn’t stop. The moment I finished I went back to page one and started again. The story of Beren and Luthien never failed to make me cry. (Before you decide I’m being very Intellectual and a Hipster – the second book I re-read so many times was Bridget Jones’s Diary and I am proud of that.) Silmarillion had a lot of pages. But it wasn’t until I started writing myself, seriously writing, that I started seriously reading again.

The addiction deepened in the last six months or so, since I discovered the #WritingCommunity and indie authors on Twitter. Contrary to the grossly popular belief, self-publishing is not always the domain of those who “failed” to find a publisher. $0.99 books are very often as good as the price suggests, but even at that price point you might be pleasantly surprised. Many indie writers put much more work into their books than big publishers – I am currently reading a mainstream book that sold very well. It’s got typos in it. Plural. I, on the other hand, replaced the files for all formats of my book and ordered new proofs because I found one extra quote mark. If I stop reading that probably means I am sleeping, eating, or writing my own.

I’d tell you how many books my e-reader displays as “unread”, but I’m ashamed.

5 thoughts on “Reading: a cautionary tale”

  1. My brother became obsessed with Middle Earth in elementary school…I think he read the Silmarillion out of loyalty to Tolkien ;). LOVE this post! And I used to read much more too…time to start again :).

    1. I initially tried Silmarillion thinking it would be more LotR, but at that age couldn’t stomach it even out of loyalty 🙂 ten years later – oh, it’s only a masterpiece. Why I harp on about Kevin Crossley-Holland’s “Norse Myths” is because I kept saying “I want the Silmarillion version of Norse mythology” and that’s exactly what it is.

    1. Thanks Rosie 🙂 Imagine what would have happened if a four-year old who accidentally taught himself to read started his literary adventures with 50 Shades…!

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