“Before I could read, almost a baby, I imagined that God, this strange thing or person I heard about, was a book. Sometimes it was a large book standing upright and half open and I could see the print inside but it made no sense to me. Other times the book was smaller and inside were sharp flashing things. The smaller book was, I am sure now, my mother’s needle-book, and the sharp flashing things were her needles with the sun on them.
I was so slow learning to read that my parents had become worried about me. Then suddenly, with a leap as it were, I could manage quite long words. Soon I could make sense of the fairy stories Irish Granny sent – the red, the blue, the green, the yellow. Then she sent The Heroes, The Adventures of Ulysses, Perseus and Andromeda. I read everything I could get hold of. There was the usual glassed-in bookcase at the end of the sitting room, but it was never locked, the key was lost, and the only warning was that we must keep it shut, for the books must be protected against insects.
I can still see the volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica that I never touched, a large Bible and several history books, yellow-backed novels and on the top shelf a rather odd selection of poets, Milton, Byron, then Crabbe, Cowper, Mrs Hermans, also Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels, Pilgrim’s Progress.
My nurse, who was called Meta, didn’t like me much anyway, and complete with a book it was too much. One day she found me crouched on the staircase reading a bowdlerised version of the Arabian Nights in very small print.
She said, “If you read so much, you know what will happen to you? Your eyes will drop out and they will look at you from the page.’
‘If my eyes dropped out I wouldn’t see,’ I argued.
She said, ‘They drop out except the little black points you see with.’
I half believed her and imagined my pupils like heads of black pins and the rest gone.
But I went on reading.”
Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (1981)
But I went on reading. How I love this last line. It shows how once a reader has been ‘born’, he or she is likely to be unstoppable. Even if one were to get off on a slow start, as in the case of Hugh Walpole, once the moment of liberation comes there is just no looking back.
“To begin at the begining then, the first book in the world from which I am conscious of receiving any sort of ecstasy was one entitled ‘Lottie’s Visit to Grandmamma’. From the early pages of it I was first taught to read and the beginings were anything but ecstatic. Looking now at the volume, I perceive that the first page is divided off (I suppose by the careful hand of my governess) into two lines at a time, and I gather that two lines a day were as much as I could just then manage. I fancy also from the marks upon the page that battles of blood and tears were fought over every word, and one word of three syllables is underlined with desperate emphasis as though here was an obstacle never to be surmounted.
So I struggled, I daresay, for months and months, and the suddenly liberation came and I paced ahead. I can remember exactly the moment at which my first consciousness of ecstasy arrived. Lottie and her little friend had been permitted by their Grandmamma to go for a walk on the beach while a gale was blowing; there is a picture of them clutching their funny little straw hats, their short, spindle legs wabbling below them, and then suddenly an old gentleman’s umbrealla is blown away and Lottie and her little friend, being not modern children at all but always rather on the watch for succouring the aged and doing good to invalids, rush after and, in spite of a terrific battle with the gale, secure if for the old gentleman, who thanks them in the most courtly and early-Victorian manner.
I can remember very vividly indeed that this dramatic passage was a revelation to me. I saw it all so sharply that there was no need for the charming picture. My own personal life was instantly doubled, no passages that I read afterwards, whether in the pages of Marryat, or Melville or of Conrad, gave me more vividly the impression of the perils of the sea than did these few lines; the windows were opened and I knew once and for all what Reading could do for one.”
Hugh Walpole, These Diversions: Reading (1926)
And what wonders indeed, reading can do! How much more enriched one’s life can be just by the simple act of reading. The journeys that books take us on. Oh, what adventures lay in wait for the reader who is about to open the pages of a book!
Let your bookcases and your shelves be your gardens and your pleasure-grounds. Pluck the fruit that grows therein, gather the roses, the spices, and the myrrh. If your soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from sight to sight. Then will your desire renew itself and your soul be satisfied with delight.
Judah Ibn Tibbon