A Shadow Life in Books

6 Mar

For World Book Day.

I mooted the idea on twitter recently that I would enjoy a radio programme called Desert Island Books. Like the discs version it would be about those significant books in your life, not necessarily your favourite, but those that had some personal meaning.

I like to think that from the age of about 8 I have always had at least one book on the go. At that age we had a book club at school, a catalogue would arrive, you would take it home and pore over the different titles, and select a couple – I think they cost about 15p. You would then wait so long that you would forget all about them, and then they would arrive and I can still feel that excitement of receiving a brand new book. That’s how my journey in books began, and it continues to this day. I am currently approaching Bleak House for the first time in a carriage, in the company of the wards in Jarndyce. At the same time I have just set off in Mad Uncle Jack’s carriage from the home of Eddie Dickens, as I am also reading Philip Ardagh’s book to my children. I have only just started reading Dickens, in my 50th year, thanks to a conversation on twitter that convinced me I would love him. I do, so thank you for convincing me.

If you’re not actually going to appear on Desert Island Books you have the luxury of pondering at length what your list might include, without having to make a decision. I don’t want to bore you with this blog – there are books to be read! – but here are some of the points on the map of my life’s journey in books. This is a list, but I’ll describe the impact of the first few, just to push the boat out…

Moominland Midwinter. The atmosphere of this book stays with me to this day. It’s a place I yearn for with a nostalgia that I felt even as I read it as a child. Something about the beautiful way Tove Jansson writes touches that deep note of familiarity and homeliness in her strange land at the edge of the world.

Lord of The Rings. I was probably about twelve when I read it, and I remember this being the first time I became completely engrossed in a book. That experience of wanting to return to a world that lived in your own mind has never left me, the comfort of knowing it would be there waiting for me at the end of the day. I’d read in the bath and in bed, the two places where I still read the most. Every night I fall asleep with a book in my hands.

Henry Miller. From about the age of 14 I discovered grown up reading in the form of Henry Miller. I remember seeing these distinctive books on my parents’ bookshelves from when I was a child. Miller opened my mind to the possibilities of creativity and I have no doubt that he was a huge influence on my young mind.

Ok, from here on it’s rough sketches. Richard Brautigan – Sombrero Fallout. A great introduction to Brautigan, and reading him as a teenager I was hooked. I loved science fiction, detective fiction, comics. I studied Flaubert at A Level, loved him and found my way to Zola. For a while in my twenties, I became fixated on Jewish writers, particularly Isaac Bashevis Singer. While I was still full of youthful vim and vigour I consumed Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and I’m pretty sure I had a go at the Bible. Beryl Bainbridge became a favourite, Wilfred Thesiger, and Annie Proulx. It’s at this point that the books I love most are the ones that my wife and I grew to love together, Snow Falling On Cedars, Cold Mountain, the holiday books drunk down in deep draughts. Before the arrival of children, holidays abroad were day after day of book reading, talking about them over food and drink. To be away from home, from everyday cares, and then once more removed, was such bliss.

There have been thousands of them, truth be told, but I don’t have a great memory. It all gets a little patchy. I recall little of what I’ve read apart from an after glow. There’s always a new one at the front of my mind, and a consciousness of the next in line. I read slowly – I fear my reading of Bleak House will take as long as the Jarndyce & Jarndyce case. But reading is a sort of shadow life, another version of yourself which goes out to meet the minds of others, and one of the greatest pleasures is to come back from those journeys to share your discoveries with friends.

PS I wrote this feeling a bit tired, so it’s not as comprehensive as it might have been. I might well add in other significant books as they occur to me.

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3 Responses to “A Shadow Life in Books”

  1. Bridget March 6, 2014 at 9:34 pm #

    This is lovely. I tried to make my “Desert Island Discs” a couple of years ago and limited it to 5 books which was extremely hard. My blog post about them is here http://wp.me/p2yxwN-70 How many discs do you get to choose on the radio?

    • mooseallain March 7, 2014 at 8:09 am #

      Thank you. I’m not sure without googling it! 8 maybe?

      • kentishlol March 7, 2014 at 8:32 am #

        Pretty sure it’s 8, but you get the Bible and complete works of Shakespeare as freebies for your books/ luxury items, so perhaps it should be 10 for books? At least. 😉

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