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.
There is not a time when I remember being unable to read. Nor do I remember learning to read. My only childhood memory of this process is watching my father put a brown paper cover on my reading book and knowing I could never make anything as beautiful as that. To see my name written in bubble writing, with the simplest of adornment, to hold the arrow-dart-cut-offs from the corner folds, filled me with childish pride in my own importance. But of the reading of Janet and John, I remember nothing. Dr Seuss, however, was another matter. The parcels arrived regularly addressed to Master Colin Fisher, another source of infant egoism, and the Dr. Seuss books they contained fulfilled the promises on the cover: I Can Read by Myself. Green Eggs and Ham, Fox in Socks, One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back were read and reread until the covers fell off. Not so the last book, intended to finish a series encouraging a child to read real books by giving him or her a real book. In this case a very disappointing book about a pony. But, as a staging post on my literary journey, it too did what it promised. I was able to read first The Tailor of Gloucester and then The House at Pooh Corner, both presents, the last from my Granny Fisher.Comics played an important role in my childhood reading, beginning with Teddy Bear and then moving on to The Dandy, The Beano, Victor, Hotspur, Valiant, Hornet, Warlord and 2000AD. I make no claims to their literary content or indeed my tastes but I knew what I liked. On the other hand, I also read The Castle of Green Yew, Stig of the Dump, Eagle of the Ninth and A Dog so Small . For this I have my mother to thank. It was she who bought me books while my father bought me Airfix kits. Bringing up a family of six children on a librarian’s salary was a never ending struggle against new shoes, five pints of milk delivered daily and baths every night, heated by the gas boiler. Five shillings spent on a new paperback could have gone instead on a loaf of bread and a pound of cheese. So, it was off on the long journey by public transport to the Glasgow Southside for my mother and the jumble sales organised by the Jewish community groups in that area. It was from there that she returned with Puffin books, some of which she gave us to read and others which she read to us, such as The Children of Green Knowe.
I was not, however, confident when choosing books for myself. We made regular journeys as a family through the woods to the library just on the other side of the railway. I picked my books on the siege of Stalingrad and watched my sisters and mother choose their books, for the most part novels and story books. I was overwhelmed by the number of books in that local library and envied the ease and confidence with which they made their choices. Overwhelming too was the John Smith book shop in Glasgow’s St. Vincent Street. I was regular visitor there on Saturdays on my way back home from drama class and left regularly with yet another copy of the latest Peanuts book, featuring Charlie Brown. It would be read before I got off the train.My older brothers returned from university for the holidays with beards and copies of Penguin Classics. So, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, it was goodbye to Biggles and hello to Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamzov, The Roads to Freedom trilogy and The Outsider. The titles point to a change less profound than they may seem to suggest. I was still reading Arthur Ransome and Russell Hoban’s A Mouse and His Child. The truth is that I saw nothing incongruous in reading such diverse titles. Reading was, for me, an act rather than a statement. It was something I did because, well, everyone in my family read. As a result, Raskolnikov’s murder of the old woman was, and possibly remains, a mystery. But I never thought of asking anyone. I shared nothing of my reading with anyone. I suppose I saw myself as independent when in reality I was merely passive in my choice of books.
This well-worn anecdote sums up my university years: seeing me read Camus’ The Plague, my room mate asked me my opinion of it as metaphor for the German occupation of France in the Second World War. I did not know what he was talking about as I had not bothered to read the blurb on the back. I was reading, as far as I was concerned, a novel about the impact of the plague on a French colonial town in North Africa. So, there were hours of reading in the university library about English Levellers, French Protestants and the price of corn in Essex but not a lot of understanding on my part. There was also another bookshop for me to walk out of overwhelmed and empty handed: James Thin on Edinburgh’s South Bridge. On the few occasions that I did leave with a book, it was Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers or George Steiner’s Language and Silence. I think I could return to the former but the latter defeated me then and would do the same today.
Post-university was, for me, the age of the unreliable narrator: Borges, Calvino and Scotland’s homegrown version, James Hogg all lay on my bedside table or accompanied me back to my parents’ house on my visits and to an Aga-heated house they rented in the Galloway village of Ballantrae. It all seemed so very 1980s, so very apt for a decade of social and political stress and strain, played out daily on the television. Although that door to the labyrinth is now closed to me (I think it was I who shut it), it was the first time that I talked about books, often on long walks across Edinburgh with a friend or in a bar on the edge of the Stockbridge district, a packet of Benson & Hedges cigarettes and pints of Belhaven to help us on our way. Then, it all seemed to go flat. I was working in a small town on the west coast of Scotland and forced myself to join the QPD bookclub because I could not think what else to do to find books to read. Yes, I was still walking out of bookshops empty-handed and overwhelmed, this time the new Borders Bookstore in Glasgow. I reread Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rosemary Sutcliff and Lucy Boston, and compiled a list of all the books I had thrown away. None of the above was coincidental, of course.
I do not know why I bought a copy of Arnold Bennett’s Literary Taste: How to Form it. His name was familiar, it may even be there was a Penguin Classic edition of Anna of the Five Towns in my parents’ home, next to the copies of Dostoevsky, Sartre and Camus – although that seems a little too much the-road-less-travelled, even for me. He opened a new door and through it I stepped into the welcoming arms of the middlebrow novel. Not for the first time, a self-conscious capricious decision (much like my support for Stenhousemuir football club) has transformed itself into a set of values that inform my moral compass. For what I have discovered, as I move through the second half of my fifties, is as a young man I thought that reading was an act of intellect and not one of emotion. Our brains are old, predating our thinking lives and more suited for survival and a belief in magic. The Greeks understood this in the molpê, the sacred dance and chant, when through an act of mimesis they became what they wished to represent. From that came art and poetry, not from philosophy. I glimpsed this as a young man in Christopher Logue’s War Music, his translated extract from the Iliad. I stood before Troy’s walls in wonder, witness to the death of Patroclus and Achille’s blood fury. But I did not understand that this was why I read: to feel that surge of emotion. Instead I read trying to understand through thought the message of the book. Thirty-five years later, and to my surprise, I find that same wave of emotion in the works of Arnold Bennett, Elizabeth Von Arnim and Naomi Mitchison.