A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Today we’re joined by guest writer Chris Harding, with this lovely piece about her family and their crucial influence on her lifelong relationship with books.
I come from a bookish family. My maternal grandmother ran away from her Norwegian home and arrived in England in 1915, accompanied only by a trunk full of books. It must be a hereditary trait because I never travel without a book – and nor do my mother, my daughters or my brother and his family. Other people pack clothes and suncream for their holidays: we pack books. And while on vacation we don’t buy souvenirs: we buy books.
I have been known to go away and buy so many books that I have jettisoned clothes to make room in my luggage on the homeward journey, while my younger daughter spent three years trekking backwards and forwards to university with cases laden with books (not just for her course, she would return one set of novels, and gather up others) – but never remembered a toothbrush, night attire or other essentials.
When I was young my parents read children’s books, fairytales and nursery rhymes to my brother and I, but in addition my mother used to cradle me in her arms and recite aloud from whatever she happened to be reading at the time, while my father paraphrased the histories of his socialist heroes. Alongside the tales of Winnie the Pooh, Ratty, Mole and Jo March, we listened to Dickens, Jane Austen and Wordsworth, and heard stories about Marx, Robert Owen, the Diggers and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
As we grew older we read anything and everything: stories, poems, myths, legends, books on history, geography and science, encyclopedias that were old when our father was young, newspapers, magazines, bus and train timetables, and even the backs of cereal packets and labels on sauce bottles. We read everywhere and anywhere: walking to school, in lessons (I used to wedge a book beneath the lid of my desk), in the bath and in bed (by torchlight, under the covers when we were supposed to be asleep). And we all read at mealtimes, elbows on the table, a book propped in front of each plate, each of us lost in another world as we munched our food. When we did speak it was only to discuss our reading matter. Since my mother, normally a stickler for polite behaviour, saw nothing wrong with this – indeed, she still reads at the table whenever she can – I was shocked when I discovered that in other households this practice was regarded as neither normal, nor polite.
I suspect my friends’ parents would have been even more taken aback at the sight of my mother reading while she ironed – an admirable skill which, sadly, I have been unable to acquire successfully. I have tried, but my efforts only result in burnt offerings, with disastrous consequences to book, garment and myself.
Our parents, keen readers themselves, with wide ranging tastes and an eclectic collection on their shelves, never set any boundaries when it came to reading, or chastised us for reading in the wrong place, or at the wrong time. They never once told us a book was too old, too young, too difficult or in any way unsuitable. The only exception to this ‘no rules’ rule was comics, which they didn’t regard as proper books and therefore refused to buy, so we used to sneak a peek at them at them in the local newsagent’s shop, or at the homes of friends.
But it is thanks to their encouragement that I found the confidence to read what I wanted when I wanted, rather than doing so because it was on a school syllabus, or was popular, or because someone told me to. They also gave me the courage to form my own opinions about books. I didn’t have to like a volume because it was a classic, or dismiss it because it wasn’t – but I learned to express my thoughts and state why I felt the way I did about a particular book.
The lessons learned from this have stood me in good stead over the years, not just when it comes to reading, but for life in general, and my career as a journalist in particular. It’s taught me never to take things at face value, never be to be scared of asking questions, and never to be worried if my opinions are not those of the majority.
Most of all it’s shown me that there is always more than view on anything, and that rational argument and discussion can lead to understanding , even though both sides may still agree to differ.
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Chris is former journalist and sub-editor, who loves reading and writing but hates misuse of the English language – she once returned a daughter’s school report, with the corrections marked in red ink. She has recently embarked on an Open University English course and is writing short stories based on her family history. She blogs as Chriscross.
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(The photograph – “Breakfast” – is from the photostream of Call It Crazy on Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)