There was a nice piece by Neil Gaiman in the Guardian this week about why reading is a Good Thing for children, and the rest of us. It ought to be obvious, but it obviously isn’t because there was a lot there that needed saying: about the importance of imagination and information, the value of culture and wisdom. And about fiction that opens a door and ‘shows the sunlight outside’.
It reminded me to feel grateful for the gift of literacy. It’s easy to take for granted, but I can’t imagine life without it.
I still remember the day I first learnt to read: it’s one of my earliest, and most precious memories. I was sitting with my mother and she was reading to me from a book called Farm Babies. She’d read it to me many times before and the pages were familiar. I remember pointing at a word and saying: ‘That says lamb’. In that moment, I understood what reading was. I got it.
My mother doesn’t remember. I couldn’t communicate the significance of that moment. I didn’t know the word ‘eureka’. But it was the beginning of something important.
I’d like to say that from that moment on I read everything I could get my hands on. In reality, it took a while. I had to go to school first and get officially taught to read. (Flashcards, I recall, were the fashion in the early ’60s.) But once I knew how to do it, I was the proverbial kid with their nose in a book. My favourite school report had an entry against ‘Reading’ that just said ‘Almost incessantly’.
At junior school we had a brilliant school library, and I got the run of it when I’d finished all the books in our reading scheme. I worked my way through the Moomin series very happily.
There was also a book-buying scheme, run through the school, that provided worthy novels with educational aims. I remember one about the American civil rights movement – still topical at the time – and another called Helen Keller’s Teacher. Eye-opening stuff. (As an adult, I still learn from fiction as much as from ‘factual’ stuff.)
Happy memories: Saturday visits to the local library, getting car-sick on the way home because I couldn’t wait to start reading. Visits to friends’ houses where I raided their book collections instead of playing with them. Christmas holiday trips to spend book tokens. Puffins, of course, but Green Dragons too. Exotic places like Narnia and Mallory Towers and Wyoming (I read the My Friend Flicka books for the human interest because, unlike my sisters, I wasn’t very interested in horses).
I hadn’t realised until just now that those books are among the most vivid of my childhood memories – more than most of what happened in the ‘real’ world. And I can relive them any time I choose, just by going to the bookshelves.
I read less now. Less fiction, anyway. There’s the internet, of course. And there are times when I say I won’t read novels again (I’m the person who hates everything in the book group). Then I find another one that has the magic. And when I’m too tired for newspapers, and too depressed for television, and too bored for anything else, only a book will do.