I learnt to read when I was six. Of course I had learnt to 'read' before then, but the words and sentences didn't really make much sense nor did it seem that there should be a reason for them to. When I was six we moved to Papua New Guinea, arriving in that alien world from a temporary stay in Peterborough in the UK. My father had taken a job as a civil engineer for the PNG government, a post they had held open for him for over three years. I don't remember that much about our arrival in Port Moresby, only that we had to stay some time as the guests of the local representative for some weeks whilst our home in Kainantu was finalised.
To keep me out of trouble I was given a pile of the local comics to read, primarily those of the Phantom (the Ghost Who Walks). I was hooked. I could only follow the stories in the pictures but it soon became apparent that I was missing a great deal of information and story. Without realising it, frustration drove me to connect the letters to words, the words to sentences and the sentences to meaning. I began to read.
I became a voracious reader, the libraries in the schools I attended became a vast reservoir wonder and exploration. I remember trying to read the Silmarillion on more than one occasion, albeit unsuccessfully. I was eight. When we moved back to the UK I continued to read ravenously, my limited pocket money strained by football, arcades and books. I read the Commando comics, whole series of abridged myths and legends, game books and fantasy books and crime and all sorts of stuff.
The local libraries in Hampshire once held an initiative to encourage reading; over the course of two weeks you had to read at least six books, answering questions to prove you had read them, with the reward of a certificate if you achieved this heady target. There was also a special prize for the child who read the most books during that period, a fact that I was oblivious to. I read thirty-three books during those two weeks, coming only second, in the whole county, to a girl from Aldershot who had read thirty-six books. I didn't care, it was the books that mattered. I was twelve.
For a while, after the disastrous excursion that was university, I worked in bookselling, a job I loved and enjoyed thoroughly, and a job that fed my book habit incessantly. I bought books with almost involuntary fervour, until my bedroom overflowed with them. In one flat the ends of the stairs became bookshelves, every ledge and nook and cranny a haven of the written word. Today my study is stuffed to the brim, with the bookcases on the landing and downstairs barely relieving the pressure.
Ten years ago I went to San Francisco, taking my book-soulmate with me. There we were introduced to the joyous delights of the Green Apple and City Lights bookstores. I went to theUSA with six books, my BSM with four. We returned to the UK with 52 and 49 respectively, in the main the result of one day in Green Apple Books, a day that my cousins still mention with a wry grin. Pilgrim Books on Kathmandu was another memorable discovery, although only a very few books were bought there. Today Hay-on-Wye is a bookshop Mecca for me, with Beware of the Leopard in Bristol another firm favourite. There are numerous little bookshops in the Cotswolds that are great too, although I visit them too rarely.
I buy books at a rate that out-paces my ability to read, and I read quickly and often. That is the way of things, my weekly purchases threatening the integrity of my To-Read pile. I do not care, one day I will have read them all, no matter how far off in the future that is.
I have friends who Do Not Read. Not ever. Not once. An old flatmate borrowed the same book for every holiday for three and a half years, and there were lots of holidays. He never finished it. Another just reads business books. That's what she reads, she has no patience for anything else, and doesn't get fiction. I don't understand either of them.
I love books, I love the feel of them, the sight of them on the shelf. I love the heft and smell and symbolism of them. But most of all I love the words and stories contained within, that wondrous magic through which the writer communicates. I love the invisible effort that was poured into each book, the tales and the telling. I love the wild imagination, the detail vividly drawn, I love the research and intensity and frivolity. I love the care, the attention, the passion and the love.
I love books because they hold the stories, the endeavours and the dreams of our species. They hold what has been, what was dreamt, and what is and what may be. And beyond that they are the vessels for our inventiveness, our cunning, courage and cleverness. They hold our diversity and our commonality. They are a testament to our successes and failures, our aspirations and depravities. In their unthinkable multitude they are the essence of us, both real and unreal, and they speak to us with the countless voices of those who undertake to comprehend the wonder that is humanity.
I love books because, on any level, they are simply what they are, and remain exactly that for each of us.