The happiness of a life spent reading


Image: Miss Auras, by John Lavery

I know people who are not readers, some of them I’d even call my friends. And I’m sure to them, the idea that a life spent reading is a full and meaningful one would be strange. But for me, my experiences of complete immersion in story and character, and the times and places in which I have read, are as real and meaningful (often more so) than memories of bushwalks or parties or road-trips or overseas travels.

My reading experiences are so deeply a part of me that I think they are where most of my dreams have formed and where much of my most fundamental understanding of the world has been seeded and grown.

As a child, I read as though the things I found between the covers of books were necessary to my survival. I read the way people now check their phones: everywhere. Walking to the bus, in the bath, while people were trying to talk to me, under the covers late at night, in any small gap that offered itself. I read serious books and light-hearted books, stand-alones and series. I could read more than one book in a day. I read Doctor Who and Amazon Adventures and Mallory Towers and anything with horses in it. I was crazy about book-horses, though the real ones scared me with their size, tendency to unpredictability and really impressive teeth. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and Ursula Le Guin. I read about imaginary worlds and real ones, about danger and ghosts and animals that always found their way home.

And also, wonderfully, I was read to. My father told me The Lord of the Rings by heart, and my sister obligingly read me Enid Blyton, gender-swapping the characters, which apparently made six-year-old me mad. I recall one long sick day at home, my sister read me the entirety of William Mayne’s Earthfasts in one go and lost her voice.

As a teenager my reading habits grew darker. I found myself drawn to books that reflected my own preoccupations with death, loss, sex, identity and power. The impact of books on me was immense. I discovered libraries as a source of books that I could access independently, and as a place to read them. I read in the car while my mum visited my grandmother in a nursing home that was more infinitely depressing than anything I could find between the pages. I read in my bedroom with the door shut, listening to music – Velvet Underground, Violent Femmes, the Cure, the Pixies, Janes Addiction, the Smiths. I devoured lyrics as I did stories, and while I penned poetry I also fell in love with the words of Pablo Neruda, e.e. Cummings, and Judith Wright. Reading was my own space, a place where I could try to discover what was true and what was real, where I could sound things out, where I could explore darkness and find my way through it.

And then – as if school wasn’t enough –  I embarked on years and years of study. The biggest gap in my reading of fiction has been during my time at university, particular during my honours and PhD, when I was churning through mountains of academic texts on a daily basis. But I studied history, and found enough character and story, enough longing and loss and hardship and violence, to carry me through. I do recall, though, that one of the greatest pleasures of finishing my PhD was the feeling of being able to pick up a novel again and open pages with a sense of relief.

I have never been a Book Clubber. Though reading is one of my truest loves I struggle to engage in discussion of a book, preferring to soak it in and let it metamorphose inside me rather than pick it up and turn it over, poke it and look at it this way and that.

And since I have been attempting to write novels, I have also found my admiration for and appreciation of novelists has increased. Even if I don’t much like a book, I still appreciate the fact that someone wrote it, someone FINISHED the damn thing. I respect the effort and difficulty involved, and though I’m happy to critique (and won’t necessarily finish a book if I’m not connecting with it) on some fundamental level I always find myself wanting to give a big thumbs-up to say: Hey! You did it!

These days, my reading rarely has the chance to build up steam. I get ten minutes here, half an hour there. I stick to things I can get through reasonably fast – crime fiction and YA. A big book is a serious endeavour – I’ve got a China Mieville sitting on my shelf that I’m pretty sure I’ll love but if I start now I think it will take me the rest of my life to finish.

I’m also discovering the pleasure of picture books. Every day we read and re-read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and the Elephant and the Bad Baby, Each Peach Pear Plum and more. These books are beautiful and clever and finely crafted. Lost and Found achieves perfect story structure in what is probably less than a hundred words.

Most recently,  I’ve discovered the scarily expensive joy of audiobooks. I can have a story told to me while I do the dishes or play trains with my son or fold the washing. This is wonderful beyond words! It is also possibly more expensive than a crack habit. I’ve decided to only purchase Unabridged versions of things to make all my books last longer.

And despite all the countless hours I’ve spent reading, in bed, on buses and planes and trains, in parks, in cafes or bars, in desperation, joy, fear, denial, in and out of love, the amazing thing is: there is always more to read. Though my own time is limited, I will never come to the end of this thing that is reading. I can always walk into a library or bookshop, or scroll through iTunes on my ipad, and find more stories. And I never know what characters I will meet, how they will make me feel or what I will learn. But I do know I couldn’t imagine my life without those voices and without the journeys I’ve taken as a reader.

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