Have you stopped reading for pleasure?
Photo: via An Autumn Sunset
I have a confession: although I read thousands of words as an Arts undergraduate, and wrote over 150,000 words in essays, I've never read for pleasure. Pleasure for me was sprawling atop the Saturday broadsheet with a cup of Earl Grey, imagining my ideal life; I'd hunt for my dream job in My Career, trot over to Domain to scope out a house, and then plan my perfect weekend in the arts section. As far as reading books for pleasure ... does the Ikea catalogue count as a book?
The will to read books haunted me though; it's something I wanted to do, but I couldn't figure out the way in between full-time work, a partner, friends and a house. Perhaps it was laziness on my part, or a case of not knowing where to start. Bookshops reminded me of churches, and filled me with guilt; sacred places which felt inaccessible to me, a non-practicing reader, a sheep who had strayed from the flock.
Perhaps it was because I didn't come from a well-read family. My dad's idea of writing was scratching notes on a piece of two-by-four. The most exciting books we had at home were the World Book Encyclopaedias; while comprehensive and accessible for people of all educational backgrounds (including curious eight-year-olds), they'd hardly be considered scintillating reads.
Fiction found me in the strangest of places, a few months into motherhood. Enclosed within a maternal cocoon, I soon realised I needed an outlet to use the parts of myself that I felt were fading, namely my brain. A girlfriend suggested we join a book club. Sure. I'm in. Give me books I don't have to choose myself, for I don't know where to begin, and I'll be there. Our first book was The Book Thief, and I loved it so much I stopped reading about 30 pages from the end because I simply did not want the story to finish. I didn't know books could wield that kind of power and be so darned pleasurable and indulgent. Reading opened a door to an entire universe that I had been oblivious to, a world within my own head space that had previously been cluttered with my imaginary Ikea furniture. All I had to do was move the furniture around a bit to make that door more accessible.
As our family grew — in size and number — reading became a space my children couldn't enter. They could steal my pillow, take bites out of my toast and steal my cappuccino froth, but they couldn't touch my Wuthering Heights or come with me to Winton country. Books were magic, like a Tardis; they could take me out of myself, out of my home and my body.
The boon was that the idea of reading for fun swept into our house like a spring breeze. We all started to watch less TV; its wares paled in comparison to books. The more I read, the more we found time to read to the kids, and before long they were eating books for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every naptime and bedtime began with stories and a kiss, no matter how much the day had deteriorated. We discovered their differing tastes and offered books accordingly. Every fortnight we ‘d have a smash and grab session at the library, where each of our three sons would stock up with book provisions for the next two weeks.
''Mum, what are you doing?'' then five-year-old Louis asked.
''I'm reading,'' I offered, lifting the book off my knee.
''But why aren't your lips moving? Why is there no sound?''
''Oh. Because I'm doing it in my head. Once you become good at reading, you'll be able to read in your head too. No sound, your mouth won't even move. You'll hear it in your head.''
He went away and mulled it over. This was a foreign concept for a child who had verbalised every thought he'd ever had. Meanwhile, a future of silent reading sung to me like a siren song. He'd have Roald Dahl and Oliver Jeffers, and I'd have Jeanette Winterson and Jeffrey Eugenidis. Our future would be built of books rather than flat pack furniture.
Louis, now in prep, can read to me. He thinks books will make him smarter, and the fact that he believes this already makes him very clever.