The tradition of reading

One of my first memories of my mother is of her voice reading out loud to me, and of her hands holding up the book and turning the pages. I remember it was a book of nursery rhymes, and my favourite began, The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea / In a beautiful pea green boat. / They took some honey, and plenty of money / Wrapped up in a five-pound note. I remember the two of us in her big bed, with the wind blowing in through the jasmine vine outside her window and wafting us with scent.

One day, when I asked her to read aloud to me as usual, she said, “You can read it yourself.” Taken aback, I said I couldn’t read. She put the book in my hands and said, “Try.” So I did. And to my astonishment—I could. I could read!

After that, there was no stopping me. I devoured all the books I could get my hands on. My parents had a fairly well-stocked bookcase, and they joined countless buy-a-book plans to get us the World Book Encyclopedia, a set of Childcraft, and the Time Life series on great civilizations and on art. I read fairy tales and folk tales, Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden. The Little House books. The Secret Garden. I read Gone With the Wind when I was nine or ten. Then on to the classics: all of Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maud Montgomery. Jane EyreThe Diary of Anne FrankLorna DooneRebecca. In high school I went through an unfortunate period of teen romance books, but those led me to Barbara Cartland and other historical romances, and finally, in a roundabout sort of way, back to the classics: Jane Austen, the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot.

Occasionally I liked to read ghost stories that kept me up at night (and I still do) – imagining all sorts of sinister reasons for every sound in the dark. The Woman in Black, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and more recently, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. A short story called The Yellow Wallpaper still sends shivers down my spine whenever I think of it.

I started sending books to my nephew when he was still quite young: they were the easiest things to wrap and send by mail. And of course, in my reasoning, no other gift could bring more pleasure. My sister also started reading to him early. Together they’ve gone through the Chronicles of NarniaThe Hobbit, and all of Harry Potter.

Now, to my great delight, he’s reading the books by himself. The King in the Window, and The Neverending Story, which my sister tells me he couldn’t put down, and took with him everywhere. How well I know the feeling!

It’s been a bit of a challenge to find him the sort of books he would enjoy—somehow I don’t think Little Women or Little House would go over very well. But it’s a challenge I’m happy to meet. For his birthday I’ve found Tom’s Midnight Garden. Before I give it to him, though, I’m going to read it myself. It’s been years since I last did, and I remember being captured, along with Tom, that summer midnight when the faulty grandfather clock in the story strikes thirteen. It will be like getting re-acquainted with an old, long-lost friend.

And once in a while a book comes along, and although you’ve just met, somehow you know you’ll be friends for life. I found such a book just the other week: The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. It’s sitting on my desk as I write, as we both wait for a time when I can finally pick it up and give it my undivided attention.

Because you see, books—I’m firmly convinced—are like people. They can be wonderful company. They tell you stories, make you laugh and cry, give you good ideas, advice, and inspiration. Some of them can change your life. Just one of them changed mine—that book of nursery rhymes. If my mother hadn’t read to me, who knows what I would have ended up doing. But she did, and what adventures I’ve had, ever since I first set off in that beautiful, pea-green boat.


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