Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
Francis Bacon, Of Studies (1625)
It has become a talisman of sorts as I navigate the mutable landscape that is post-earthquake Christchurch. Journeys down Barbadoes Street are punctuated, at the Kilmore Street intersection by a quick glance to my right just to check, ‘It’ is still there. ‘It’, is the Book Fridge, officially known as the Think Differently Book Exchange, an early Gap Filler initiative. This capacious commercial fridge is due to celebrate its third birthday in July and lately I’ve been pondering its longevity amid the many and varied Gap Filler projects that have come and gone since 2011. Materialising on July 17 we were invited to fill it with books. Not just any books but books of a certain stature, books that had “changed your life and made you think differently.” An obsessive reader since childhood I imagined this book-filled fridge a literary Tardis. Akin to a Tardis, interiors of wonderful books are invariably larger than their exteriors, capable of transporting you, the occupant, to any moment in time anywhere in the universe. A shy and rather anxious child, books were a cocoon into which I could legitimately retreat from the social demands of everyday life. I curled up in rather than with books, they kept and still keep me, psychologically warm. Unfettered access to books was surely the elixir every Christchurch resident needed given the majority of the city’s libraries’ and better bookshops lay ruined, too risky or just inaccessible within the city cordon.
“We all know how reading has saved our lives”, Lydia Wevers writes in On Reading, “but usually only from the minor evils – boredom, weather, monotony, the beige death of thought, other kids.” But does it cut the mustard when faced with real misery Wevers asks, and people, as those in Christchurch did and many still do, “find themselves suddenly way beyond the borders of ordinary life.” Clearly, Wevers considers reading can and has mitigated real misery offering both personal and more widely known examples. Her mother read and re-read Jane Austen throughout the misery of WWII, crediting Austen’s books, her sanity saver. And what, Wevers wonders of Janet Frame’s fate had she not read? Her life seems to offer incontrovertible evidence of reading and writing salvaging and sustaining a life.
Of course real misery, like an insistent tongue, is endlessly demanding and oddly enough so too is the reading we do that will, according to Harold Bloom, “prepare ourselves for change.” So not unexpectedly, three weeks following the official opening of the Book Fridge, a despondent Coralie Winn (Gap Filler Co-founder & Director) noted, “the calibre of the books has dropped with there being (sic) a great deal of romantic fiction in the fridge which is disappointing but not unexpected.” Even the impeccable Robertson Davies, who considered reading an art and in an essay, A Call to the Clerisy, advised readers to “approach reading in a less passive and more interpretative spirit” also conceded; “the best, as every true reader knows, is not always what one wants; there are times when one does not feel equal to the demands of the best….very often one wants no more than ‘a good read’, to shut out the world while those bruises heal which the world has given.” But is the impulse to read enough or even summonable when wretched or wounded? Indeed Janet Frame read very little during her periods of hospitalisation at Sunnyside, Seacliff and Avondale – the Maudsley Hospital in London was possibly the exception. In Michael King’s vivid biography of Frame, Wrestling with the Angel, he describes her carrying, “like a precious talisman”, but seldom reading The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, just turning the pages was enough. Perhaps in times of grown-up misery, it is not the actual reading that saves us but instead a memory of it. Mesmeric page turning then is the liminal moment when you leave a confounding adult world and return to the simplicity of childhood and the promise of books.
My mother read to me from an early age ignoring warnings from her mother-in-law that she would “turn that child’s head!” We celebrated her eighty-first birthday recently and although she reads very little now I asked about her once proclivity for reading. “Oh I loved reading and I read to you a lot” she enthused. Pausing briefly and looking slightly abashed she added, “I kept reading in the hope you would fall asleep.” So although my parents lived with nightly uncertainty – when a book failed to have the desired soporific effect my father would resort to pram pushing – my mother, was inculcating in me the certainty of books and the delights of reading.
The books I recall requesting frequently while still a listener to, rather than a reader of books, were those written and illustrated, by Racey Helps; Barnaby in Search of a House, published in 1948, and Little Tommy Purr, in 1954.
I still have Barnaby. He clings to life, his boards held together by a rubber band which acts as a rudimentary splint for his long-ago broken spine.
Although heavy with anthropomorphic sentimentality and written for, as Help’s said “the very young from four to about eight” the language is both rich and sophisticated – arguably difficult for the young listener or reader – for instance; ‘venerable’, ‘bole’, ‘predicament’, ‘doleful’, ‘stifled’. Whether or not they recognise or understand these words is immaterial, early exposure – written and aural – to adventurous writing counts. Author and literary critic Clifton Fadiman was quite right. In the introduction to Reading I’ve Liked he wrote, “long words tickle the fancy of children….they like the slight atmosphere of mystery distilled by a really bang-up polysyllable.” Fadiman was pretty impressed with children’s abilities to, on the one hand “read reams of careless prose with great enjoyment”, while on the other remain “sensitive to beautiful writing”. He wasn’t sure how they discerned the difference – maybe it’s that early exposure after all – but they did know and cited his son as a key example;
“My own son is not over fond of books. Rather than forgo an airplane flight he would willingly see the Forty-second Street library vanish in flames. Two years ago I tried the young barbarian – he was about seven – on The Wind in the Willows, and he could make nothing of it. I tried him again some few months ago. He finished it with absorbed calm, clapped the book to, and said with finality, “Now that’s what I call well written!” He has never said this about any other books he’s read, many of which he has “enjoyed” more. The fact is that The Wind in the Willows is the best-written book he has read so far, and somehow he knew it, though he had never been given any hint to affect his judgment.” (xvii-xviii)
Although Fadiman wrote this passage over seventy years ago, the moment I read it those year’s concertinaed and we were both nodding in parental agreement. I’d had a similar experience with my daughter. Always a keen listener to stories she nevertheless struggled as a beginning reader. Reading mileage, a lot of what they like and often – my partner’s a teacher – was prescribed. She’d loved the formulaic Rainbow Fairies series usually read aloud at bedtime. Interspersed with Rachel and Kirsty’s adventures were other tales; Dominic by William Steig, Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child, The Improbable Cat by Allan Ahlberg and E.L. Konigsburg’s, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler. But for now Rainbow Fairies it was, only this time with roles reversed – she would proudly read chapters to me. During one of these, her-reading-me-listening sessions, she paused mid-sentence, sighed and said “this writing is quite boring Mama.” It had never been suggested that these books were inferior to any others she’d heard, but somehow she just knew.
I was born in 1961 so the childhood staple was writing by British authors; Beatrix Potter, A.A Milne, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Joyce Lankester Brisley, Kenneth Grahame, C.S Lewis and Malcom Saville among others. According to my mother I read independently from age six, was reasonably adept and seemed to enjoy it. The one nod to New Zealand on our family bookshelf – the connection decidedly tenuous as all the stories were set in Normandy! – was Long Ago in Rouen, a collection of eight children’s stories written in 1937 by my mother’s god-mother Ida Withers while she was working as a governess in France just prior to the Second World War. Although a fledging reader I much preferred these quirky tales to be read aloud. A particular favourite was Monsieur Corneille’s Crumple-Dumplet. The crotchety Roger Corneille has demanded a crumple-dumplet for his lunch nothing less will keep him alive. The successful and proud baker Jean-Pierre Tisserand can’t remember what a crumple-dumplet is – you can probably guess where this is headed – caught in the middle of this little French farce is Michel, the baker’s delivery boy. Michel is hoping to earn a louis (a gold coin in circulation between 1640 and 1793) so he can buy his mother a pair of leather shoes. Instead he earns the wrath of Roger Corneille and returns to the bakery day after day wearing the remnants of yet another pastry that is not a crumple-dumplet. Whimsical illustrations by Maggie Salcedo enriched each of these stories.
Books by American and Canadian authors came later – I adored Alcott and Coolidge but, much to my mother’s disappointment, disliked Montgomery – Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time I discovered, courtesy of the school library, at age twelve. I didn’t give a hoot about where or from what century a writer came, whether well-known or unknown, it was the story that mattered. An equal opportunity reader I happily read most of my brother’s books; Just William, Biggles, Tintin and a lot of Alfred Hitchcock & the Three Investigators – I rather fancied myself as Bob Andrews, “somewhat studious and an excellent researcher.”
It seems to me I was given a good deal of latitude when it came to reading. I can’t recall being urged to read any of the ‘Classics’ but eventually found the Bronte’s, Austen and Dickens. During secondary school I developed a certain fondness for reading plays; Hedda Gabler, The Birthday Party, Waiting for Godot, The Miser, The Importance of Being Earnest, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and Blood of the Lamb – I think this interest was largely due to an enlightened English teacher who took us to see these plays at the Court Theatre. In retrospect, I read for readings sake; in other words I read because I wanted to not because I had to, my mission; enjoyment not enquiry. Naturally as I got older the pendulum swung the other way and many books had to be read to pass a test, write an essay, or advance professionally. As Somerset Maugham wrote, “such books we read with resignation rather than with alacrity”. That we continue to read for enjoyment is the central thesis in Books and You. There are, Maugham advises, books that “will help you to live more fully”, but firstly they must interest you and secondly, enjoyment should be derived from reading them otherwise they will be of little use to you.
As I write I’m reminded of something I said to Ali during our trip to New York in 2011. This particular morning we had gone separate ways – her still in search of that elusive New York dress, me to McNally Jackson Books. When we met later she remained ‘dress-less’ while I had yet another bag of books. Ostensibly to cheer her up – though possibly to assuage sudden pangs of guilt – I pointed out our endeavours were not comparable noting, “it’s much easier for me I don’t have to try a book on I just know it’s going to fit.” Paradoxically, this is because I’ve been ‘trying-on’ books for years so I might read myself more fully alive. I’ve donned a variety of styles, at times struggled with fit, hoped I’d grow into some and tried to avoid the lure of trends. A great book is a microcosm of life; it demands your attention, presumes trust, can reward or disappoint. Reading deliberately is at once personal and participatory – you recognise and remember, imagine and interpret, discover and develop. Perhaps this is why a book-filled fridge, on the fringes of an inner city destroyed by earthquake, endures.