When I was in Sicily at the beginning of July, we talked a lot about how you often see yourself in writing. This reflection can make you enjoy the writing more, and it helps us make sense of the world. It is that moment when you think ‘this author and I could be friends’. For many of us, bumbling along in this life, thinking am I doing this right?, reading is a way to find yourself, and your tribe, because you see yourself reflected back from the pages of a book or an article. Sometimes this can make you smile, or laugh out loud, or weep with familiarity.
Most recently, this has happened to me while reading Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading. Lucy grew up with her nose in a book. While the world moved about around her (her family getting on with other things), she was reading, reading, reading. She describes her childhood and teen years through the books she read, and there is a lot of history about children’s books, and their authors too. I particularly love the voice she sometimes uses when talking about her little sister and the footnotes are particular gems: “It was a mistake, overall, to let her read this before publication. She is upsetting me” (p.85).
There were many books that I had also read as a youngster (and plenty I continue to read now) and I was reminded of many forgotten favourites I had as a child. Even Borka gets a shoutout and hardly anyone ever mentions her. I thoroughly enjoyed Mangan’s defence of Enid Blyton, whose Faraway Series and Famous Five and The Naughtiest Girl in School I absolutely loved. My mother was (is still) incredibly disapproving of Blyton’s twee-tone. For me, they were magical books, twee or not. But it is the elaboration of bookworm dreams that really make the book:
“When I am in the rambling Norfolk farmhouse of my dreams, with the freedom at last to shelve my entire book collection as it should be shelved… […] Other people plan retirement cruises, and look forward to dandling grandchildren on their knees. This is what I do” (p. 36).
“What we [bookworms] really want is to retire to a tiny cottage somewhere unreachable to all but a chosen few as soon as we have accumulated enough books and money to be able to live out the rest of our days reading uninterruptedly from dawn till dusk and living on fried potatoes, eggs and the occasional rosy apple that had been due to be given to a lame pony down the lane” (p. 155).
There is argument too, “a book belongs as much to the reader as to the author” (p. 275), after Mangan discovers that the author of a beloved volume no longer cares for the book itself. A rightfully devastating discovery, especially so if the book gave something to you at a time in your life when you needed it. This is probably why you should never meet your heroes. Mangan rereads books – in times of stress, when tired, or on holiday, she says. I love to reread books. I get something different from them every time. The best books are the ones you can read multiple times and each time the story is slightly different.
There is a handy list at the back of the book, with all the books mentioned. It is worth picking up for that alone. But also because it is such a pleasurable read. A book about books! What could be better?