As a teenager, my Saturday morning habit was to stumble wordless into the kitchen for some food, then return to bed for an orgy of reading. By late afternoon I would have consumed two novels and filled my bed with crumbs. Reading fiction was, and is, my compelling vice.
When I am writing fiction myself, I feel the need for a nourishing diet, and try to stick to The Good Stuff, although I can lose myself in an Aga Saga with the best of them. Compulsive reading is a total escape, removing the reader from their immediate surroundings. Some years ago my youngest child took to cutting up whatever I was reading, to express her resentment at the way I could block her out so completely. Despite my omnivorous appetite for fiction, I don’t hang on to books and have very few at home. I devour them and pass them on. Words should always be in motion. Poetry, reference and signed copies are the only ones I keep. Oh – and also, some secondhand volumes I bought because their titles so intrigued me.
One book I will never give away is Poems from the Forces, found at a Newcastle book fair. It includes poems by Alun Lewis, who I’d never heard of before. It was like discovering an instant, intense rapport with a stranger on a train.
I seldom read a book twice, but one I have read almost yearly is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, perhaps because I love the ending so much. I named one of my daughters after the heroine. Brett has not thanked me for this.
To this day, I get panicky when I finish a novel and don’t have another ready to start. A gap without written words is scary. In a waiting situation, with no book to hand, I will read advertisements, phone books, ticket stubs, maps, my driving license. Anything. My eyes, so it seems, need written words in front of them.
Over the years, I have taken pleasure in befriending librarians. It is my fantasy job to be a librarian in a little library close enough to the sea to hear the waves. Or perhaps, work in a quiet secondhand bookshop where I could write uninterrupted, surrounded by books. I can’t imagine a life without books, but I have learned to stop giving them as gifts to non-readers, in the false conviction that reading is good for everyone. I have finally come to accept that a fulfilled life need not include fiction.
My favourite secondhand bookshop is Charles Leakey’s in Inverness. That it is housed in an old Gaelic church seems most appropriate. I try to go there once a week. My ‘Sabbath’ is usually a Monday. I enter with reverence. I move quietly. Upstairs, where the prayers and fears of men and women used to rise and gather, I sip a cappuccino and breathe the sweet, slightly damp odour of written words. They are not quiet, these books. The air rings with the mutterings of thousands of novelists and poets, historians and scientists.
‘I hear you,’ I say to them, ‘I hear you, you are not forgotten.’
I want to take them all home and give them the attention they yearn. I pick up The Life of Florence Barclay, self-published in the nineteenth century, illustrated with fading sepia photographs. It would be downright cruel to leave it on the shelf.
Copyright Cynthia Rogerson 2005.