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Chapters of life

by sue n 

Posted: 05 June 2005
Word Count: 849
Summary: What do we read and why? A quick few thoughts on a free weekend (This probably is not strictly journalism but didn't know where else to put it.)

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What do we read and why?
Is it random, the attractive cover, a good review or personal recommendation? Or do we choose our reading material to confirm, enliven, escape from, or inspire our own lives?

For the first time in months,I have a totally free weekend and want to read a book – but standing in front of my bookshelves I am flummoxed. I don’t know what I want to read.

Running my fingers over the spines, hardback, paperback, feeling the varying thickness and quality, some plastic coated, others old and wrinkled, a few crisp and virginal -- all dusty, I realise with a shock how much the content of my bookshelves reflect chapters in my life.

Where did it start?
My parents were avid readers but they didn’t own any books apart from the obligatory row of Readers Digest summaries, that accompanied the flying geese and lava lamps of the 50’s and 60’s. Every week my mother returned from the library with six books – four thrillers for herself and two Westerns for my father. In twenty years the pattern never changed, neither number nor genre. Surely over the years they digested the small local library’s entire stock? My mother must have been able to solve every murder by page 10 and my father must have known that the bad guy would die in the last gun-fight. It puzzled me why they never wanted to try something new. It was the same with the Daily Mirror crossword, which my mother whipped off every day – why not try a different one? These questions were never answered, primarily as I never quite got around to asking them.

I too was a voracious reader but, in a distant echo of today, I would stand in front of the library shelves not knowing where to start. Aged 11, I decided to read the complete works of Charles Dickens but on returning from the library discovered my chosen tome was by Monica Dickens and I didn’t like it.

At secondary school, I chomped my way through safe Thomas Hardy, and passed into adolescence with the help of risky DH Lawrence. At 16 I had my first literary love affairs, swept off my feet by the passion and complexities of the heroes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev. I cried with Anna Karenina and for Prince Myshkin, transported from my council estate in Sussex to 19th century Russia. “The Greatest Masterpieces of Russian Literature” were the first books I owned and how proud I was of the red and gold Heron Books that fell through my letterbox every month.

At University I didn’t have the time or money for both music and literature. Music won and my only books were dry weighty history textbooks.

In the following years of marriage and children, any book would do as long as it was not too short, not too demanding and could transport me from nappies and endless ways to turn half a pound of mince into a meal for five. The stories of Maeve Binchley, Mary Wesley and Rosamund Pilcher, were perfect--oasis of calm in the turmoil of domestic chaos. Roddy Doyle made me laugh.

Next came a dark period of unhappiness, self-doubt and ultimately divorce, when romance, either fluffy or tragic, would not do. Other people’s reading habits can be a surprise and one day a friend of many years standing revealed her extensive fantasy library. Seeming to sense what I needed, gently she led me into her secret world via Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear. Once hooked, I borrowed fat books by the carrier bag full and for a couple of years my nose was buried in tales of wizards, dragons and warlords. The multiple volumes of Raymond Feist, Stephen Donaldson, and David Eddings transported me to Belgariad and the Kingdom of the Isles, while my own world tumbled down around my ears.

As I passed into a new era as a single parent with a full-time career the reading, too, evolved. Crafty wizards were superseded by clever women – Margaret Atwood was top of the list, plus Doris Lessing, A S Byat with Zadie Smith following later. I was Kate, I was Mara.
My world began to expand and I flew with the Wild Swans along The Famished Road in search of A Suitable Boy.

As the children abandoned the nest, I began writing in my spare time, and reading for pleasure became a luxury confined to holidays and long train journeys.

Now, with a major writing task just completed, I have the time, but here I am, still bookless. There are lots of unread gems on my shelves-- Gorkys and Pushkins never opened, an eight volume Robert Jordan fantasy given to me by the husband of my friend when she died, quite a few charity shop epic sagas, loads of non-fiction….
Yet….my hand hovers, nothing draws it, and it wanders away to type this piece instead.

Is this a sign? Am I about to enter a new chapter of my life? If so, I wonder what books will accompany it?

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 13:58 on 05 June 2005  Report this post
Fscinating, Sue, especially for writers to read. These are some nit-picking minor points of punctuation preference which you may adopt or not, as you like.

father must have known..

something new - doesn't need question mark, unless direct speech- the next one is OK

dry, weighty history text books (this preference is just on sound,)

Could 'Roddy Doyle made me laugh' be a separate sentence? Otherwise should be 'but'

the reading, too, eveolved

Now, with a major

here I am, still bookless

I don't like; 'when, sadly, she died' It sounds as if it were the friend that was sad.

Oh, dear. This makes me sound like a comma freak.

I would also go for a colon in the last sentence, so you could follow it with semi-colons for your list.

I really enjoyed reading this and am inspired to think about my own reading, although for me it would be more about places, I think, or occupations that could be carried on at the same time as reading, i.e. travelling, or waiting around.


sue n at 15:36 on 05 June 2005  Report this post
Thanks Sheila
I seem to have lost my way with commas. Told I put too many in, now I am freaked by the thought of them and if in doubt I just leave them out. Ooh! that could be the first line of a poem.

Mr B. at 18:15 on 05 June 2005  Report this post
I enjoyed this. It was accessible and made me reflect on my own reading evolution (or regression!) I was interested in how particular genres suited particular chapters in your life. You explained these in a frank and moving way. I think it is journalism, as it raises important questions about why we read. Perhaps, for a more hard-nosed angle, you could look briefly at people's reading habits in general - is the desire to read dwindling? what have stories like Harry Potter's and The Da Vinci Code done to rejuvenate / annihilate people's desire to read. However you tweak it, don't lose the warmth of the narrative running through it. Respect to you putting such personal details into a piece.

Nice one,


Account Closed at 10:09 on 06 June 2005  Report this post
Sue, this was a wonderful read. Touching and charming. How about proposing it to a magazine for older readers (as it has a nice nostalgic theme to it)? The Lady, Saga or Laterliving or the Oldie? Maybe tie it in with the Hay literary festival at the beginning to make it topical.

Good luck with it


James Graham at 19:05 on 10 June 2005  Report this post
You make the idea of the reading we do at different stages of life very interesting. I would imagine many readers would see themselves in this. On point of recognition for me is the fantasy phase, which in my case too coincided with a low point in my life. Thomas Covenant especially - Lord Foul's Bane, 'It is a sun of pestilence' - but also the incredibly bad (in some ways) Dune stories by Frank Herbert. But when times get better you can't be bothered with them any more. A very enjoyable article, full of engaging little details, e.g. the flying geese and lava lamps, mistaking Monica for Charles etc.


sue n at 21:25 on 15 June 2005  Report this post
Thanks James
I read the Dune books as well - and even watched the amazingly awful film.

Bianca at 13:15 on 16 June 2005  Report this post
A little late in reading this Sue butI did enjoy it and it struck a chord.

As a child my head was always stuck in a book. I am not sure how this came about as my parents reading material was usually the daily paper, and in my fathers case, National Geographic.

Through reading I learned how to use my imagination - I had my own ideas of what the famous five were really like, how biggles flew his plane etc. The Hobbit and later, The Lord of The Rings are etched in my mind as I see them. I cannot accept the characters as they are potrayed in films.

As I live overseas and English books are thin on the ground, I buy whenever I am in the UK or through Amazon. I get paranoid if I don't have a couple of shelves of books that I have still have to read. The thought of running out of books is my worst nightmare.

Yes, I'm sure that what we read and when is a refelxion of where our life is at the time.

Thanks for this. I really enjoyed it.


sue n at 21:16 on 19 June 2005  Report this post
Thanks Bianca
I agree that books stimulate the imagination far more than films etc. The only example of where I prefered the film to the book was The Remains of the Day, other wise it has been no contest.

Shiplate at 14:12 on 22 September 2005  Report this post
Hello Sue,
The idea of a book collection being a biography resonates very deeply with me. I simply cannot bear to part with any other than the most formulaic and mass produced for airport lounges reads.I have joined Book Crossing where I live, but only collect them.

di2 at 06:41 on 03 November 2005  Report this post
I've never thought of a personal library as a biography but it's true. One look at my library and it's now obvious that it is a visual diary of my life's journey over the last fifteen years.

Your piece definitely fits into the Journalism genre. It is informative, it's non-fiction, it's insightful and more importantly it's made a difference.

Many years ago someone told me that books, once read, were not worth keeping because you would never read them again. At the time, that idea made sense to me. Sounded practical. I gave the books away. It's something I won't do again. Now I know why I miss those books. I gave away part of my biography.

I thought your piece was very well written. Well done.

I recently did a hobby course called "The Art of Reading" and discovered that there is a literary genre related to the art of reading and why we read. David Denby's book "Great Books" would fit into this genre. It's a subject that always captures my interest.

Another book about reading selection (one that I have only heard about, not read) is called "Book Lust" by Nancy Pearl. I saw her recently at the Sydney Writers' Festival. She was very amusing and knowledgeable.

Your piece has got me re-shaping some of my written pieces on reading. Thanks for the inspiration.


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