For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. Some of my earliest memories are of borrowing Enid Blyton books from the ‘library’ at my grandparents’ house: a bookshelf especially for us grandchildren, crammed with magical tales of The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, The Faraway Tree and The Twins at St. Clare’s: well-thumbed pages rich with nostalgia (and with that dusty, musty smell all old books seem to adopt), the same stories that had been devoured years earlier by my father and aunties. I couldn’t get enough of these sepia-tinted worlds; worlds in which children would pack up their sandwiches and run off for an adventure in the woods, where food always tasted better outside, and where everything was always alright in the end.
My parents would often read to me before bed, and unlike my brother, who would be asleep less than halfway down the first page, I would always beg for just one more chapter – I remember being ill one night and my Dad picking up The Island of Adventure to take my mind off it, despite the fact that it was dark outside and way past my bedtime. What a treat! Reading has always been my favourite escape.
I would however be lying if I said that having discovered the wide criticism of Blyton’s work as an adult hasn’t tainted my love of these magical stories somewhat. It is hard to read any of the originals now without picking up on the themes of racism, sexism and elitism that led to her works being banned from more public libraries than any other author (thanks, Wikipedia!) – and re-reading one of the stories this Christmas with my cousins, it was also hard not to laugh at how horrifyingly racist the depictions of her non-white characters actually were, and how ridiculously and idealistically middle-class everything seemed.
I can safely say that these descriptions have in no way or shape informed my own opinions of the world, but perhaps I’m just lucky that they also didn’t match the values of my own parents. Maybe if I had not been a white, middle-class child myself, I might have questioned why the black characters were always depicted as mean and frightening, or why Georgina was considered boyish because she didn’t have long hair, or why it was always the female characters that had to make the picnic, whilst the boys went off to save the world.
Sadly, I don’t think I would give these books to my own children (if I have any) – and that makes me incredibly sad, because they genuinely brought so much joy to my own childhood. Although Blyton was also often criticised for being too simplistic, her stories sparked my imagination no end. I loved being transported to these different worlds, whether boarding schools or enchanted forests, haunted houses or distant islands – but they are no longer stories for our time. I merely took Blyton’s words at face-value, enjoyed them for what they were and looked no further. The English Literature student in me shudders; never again. We expect more from our literature these days; we have a responsibility to ensure that the words we give to our children only broaden minds, rather than close them. JK Rowling created a world so vivid, so rich and so layered, that it appealed to adults and children alike – and if I compare the two authors… well, there really is no comparison.
When I started my English degree in 2005, somebody told me that I would never read a book the same way again – and they were absolutely right. I learnt to read critically, to subconsciously identify themes, subtext, social commentary. And it was fun! If I thought Enid Blyton could transport me to a new world, I was nowhere near ready for modules on Post-Colonial Women’s Writing or Modernity, Crisis and Narrative Fiction; for works by Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Yevgeny Zamyatin or Djuana Barnes (Jo – that one’s for you). My degree opened my mind to so many more possibilities, collections of words that I had yet to read, words that had the power to create such emotion, passion and genuine feeling. I still sometimes have to stop myself from underlining a phrase or making a note in the margin.
Films are fantastic, but they can’t give you the depth of character that a book can. I’m in awe of anyone who can craft a character, a made up person, that the reader genuinely cares about. I felt almost bereft at the end of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch; having travelled with the central character, Theo through many years of his life, through great emotional turmoil and trauma, I just wasn’t ready to leave him at the end of the book. And in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – now wonderfully captured in the new TV series – how desperately we hope that Offred is travelling to safety at the end of the novel, how passionately we care about her, having been inside her head for hundreds of pages. I loved the TV series, but I’m sure part of that love came from knowing the book beforehand, having an even greater insight into the characters than was played out on screen.
And before you think I’m all highbrow, miss ‘high and mighty I only read high quality literature’, I love a good trashy thriller too. Who wasn’t on the edge of their seats for the final pages of Gone Girl?! Reading is subjective – we all have our preferences, and I love that. There’s no requirement to stick to one genre, or to only read Man Booker Prize nominees, or to like everything your friends like. It’s good to mix it up! I even read a terrifying book called The Game a few years ago: no, not a horror story, but an insight into the slimy, is-this-even-serious world of the ‘pickup artist’; an allegedly true story in which a seemingly unattractive man is able to sleep his way around America thanks to a series of tricks and strategies to dupe women into finding him attractive. Yuck! Whilst this didn’t quite dash all my hopes of ever finding Prince Charming, it was certainly illuminating – and hey, that’s the power of the written word.
About a year ago, I met the then-two year old twins of my boss; I hadn’t even got into the room before one of them had brought me a book and plonked himself down next to me, right there in the hallway, so excited was he to get straight into the story. It was just lovely! And recently, I had the pleasure of reading a bedtime story to my friends’ six month old daughter. Even at that tiny age, it was clear to see she was transfixed by the pictures (and of course my outstanding dramatic performance!). It’s so important that we step away from the screen and look at some words every now and then (or stay on the screen if you’ve got a Kindle – no judgement here), and the younger the better.
I can’t understand it when I meet people who tell me ‘I don’t read’. I just don’t get it! I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t read as much as I’d like to – of course scrolling through Facebook or watching X Factor is sometimes simply the easier option, but why would you want to limit yourself like that?