This uni holiday, I have been reading. I haven’t really been writing, realising that every author I read or hear who talks about writing says, ‘READ, READ, READ’, something I have not done as often as I used to, for quite a few years.
As a child, I read, voraciously, anything I could find. My mother can attest this as true. I remember as a six year old struggling around the strange latin forms of dinosaur names, reading National Geographic. Perhaps I was just seven. I read my first novel, Free Spirit, the story of a beagle, a fox, a man and unlikely loves. I was given, for my sixth birthday, a copy of The Little Prince, and understood immediately that it was indeed, an elephant inside a boa constrictor. (I don’t consider it a novel though as it has pictures, and it is rather short.) I believe I learnt to read as young as 3, I definitely remember reading with my brother in our room, age four.
Fast forward, to the early school years, where I excelled in dictation and spelling, and was ahead of most of my class in reading and comprehension. The local library was a delight; stacks of books devoured (as well as those from the school library) and returned, worlds wondered at. Some books I still remember. The Silver Brumby series, decided favourites, one about a woman pirate aboard the Black Pearl (the original of the Pirates of the Caribbean?), Puberty Blues (the horror!), the Enid Blyton stories, Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes (what kid can resist them?), the cruel or ho-hum fates of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series, and, in year 6, a strange book that haunted me, called Missing Persons, about a boy who found himself in a world of grey, invisible to the world, lost in this place, plus picture book horrors about the history of vampires, werewolves and other ghoulish forms of the 19th century imagination, which sparked my own morbid wondering. These diverse, wondrous books found resonances in me. Also at that time I read the entire municipal library shelf of folk and fairy tales; Russian, Indian, Turkish, the Brothers Grimm, Christian Anderson plus a myriad of others. I was disappointed when the shelf yielded no more.
This coincided with the start of high school, and my tastes moved on accordingly.
First came horror; I read King, Koontz, and everything else around them, having moved on to the alphabetised adult section. I moved among the shelves now with my step-father; he among the non-fiction travel novels, I haphazardly, pulling off titles that titillated my curiosity, a crude thing at that time. I developed an interest in cooking; my mother’s cookbooks came under scrutiny, and use. And sex came into the picture, as had boys. I started with the tawdry teenage romances at my all girls high school and read the shelf dry again. The next year I started at a co-ed, and it was embarrassing to be seen reading such things.
Reading became a covert activity; my peers scorned intelligence of any sort, sex was illicit and furtive, and romance was embarrassing. I took my reading out of school, gravitated to the romance shelves at the municipal, Barbara Cartland my first, and after reading all of hers (and marvelling at her picture on the cover), the Harlequins claimed me. The supply was almost inexhaustible. In amongst these, for variety, came the The Clan of the Cave Bear series, the first two of which I read three times each, and the obligatory school texts (such nihilistic wonders such as z for zachariah, and paranoid, startling future tellers like 1984, as well as Shakespeare, the tragedies) which being in the advanced class, included the more literary. I was disappointed that we didn’t get to read Albert Camus, or Lord of the Flies, obviously we weren’t those inclined to rebel or lose our way, (although I tried, briefly), such texts were reserved for the intermediates and the lower ranking classes, most of whom never bothered with the books that could have saved their lives.
Then, I left home. I discovered bongs and other wonders; bands and dancing and staying up all night and failing my first subjects ever. I also discovered the wonder of law tutorials, the fascinating, juicy array of human catastrophes locked inside tomes of texts that promised nothing but dryness. I attempted the real dryness of reading the Constitution, and discovered I could fail at reading too. I dropped out, moved through a succession of boring, life-killing jobs, then moved to a tiny hippy village in Queensland and discovered permaculture, and herbs, becoming a member of a herb society and learning more about the law, and our freedoms or lack there of, and the long slow inexorable march of authority to take them away.
Fast forward again, and this time I’m reading almost entirely non-fiction; gardening books, sustainability books, Green Left Weekly, art books, books about the massacres of Aborigines, books on acting technique, a multitude of self-help books both good and terrible, and poems. I refer to this time of non-fiction as my non-reading time, as little fiction came under the radar, although there was Hesse, and Coelho, and Whyndam, Nin, both fiction and her diaries, and several others along the way.
Funnily enough, it was the foray into non-fiction that kick started my writing, back when I was 19. The break from fiction perhaps gave me space to believe in my own will to do so. But now I find myself once again needing to read fiction. My reading though is much more purposeful. I want to know – what did they do? How did they do it? As well as is this a good story? I cannot read bad work. I know I am supposed to, for what I could learn, but my spirit of attention will not do it. Perhaps this is the place I have found myself to be truly a rebel. I have become a discerning fiction reader, whereas my younger self had no filter, no eye for trashy writing or hackneyed stories. I remember the best stories from then, but I read so much trash as well.
And of course now, there is the internet, a new medium for the reading eye and brain, and veritable treasure trove of everything bullshit and serious. Libraries could become obsolete, but they are not. I have shelves of books at home, some books in another language, some books are instructional, some are institutional, some are not even my taste, but belong to my husband, some are borrowed with numbers on their spines. I will read them all, if I can. About half of them I have. Garage sales, op shops, markets all have their place, stocking my dream room of books. The library books’ only frustration is the prohibition to mark them or keep them.
How many books, how many words, ideas, lies, truths, necessities, and concepts have I read? How many have I understood? How many have changed, shaped, tethered, cut, buried or freed me? How many have I dismissed? How much more is there still to read? And looking back on this catalogue, which is by no means exhaustive, of works and words read, have I really had a period where I have not read? Have I really NOT read enough to write? Or is that just my me latching on to some little idea so as not to write?