Magic. Pure fucking unadulterated magic.
That’s what books were to me.
From day one, as long back as I can remember.
My mom bought us a whole collection of Dr.Seuss.
It came in a giant cardboard house. Well, giant to me.
This would have been about 1970. I was 9 by then,
and while I loved them, they were geared more towards my younger siblings.
I was already devouring comic books, dipping my nose into the daily paper,
and beginning my collection of small books, condensed verions of classics.
I had discovered the Illusrated Classics collection, but there was also a series of smaller,
thicker animated books. I remember I had a version of Jules Vernes’ Voyage to The Bottom of The Sea.
When I look back now, rhyme writer that I am, I know I got a large amount of my sense of rhythm from Seuss, and a large part of my vocabulary from comicbooks. Just the other day I found myself using the exclamation “egads!”
I remained a voracious reader through my young teenage years, and though never much of a thief, I have to admit (not proudly) that I stole many books from Sanderson Library, the local library at Bathurst and Dundas in Toronto, beside my school, Ryerson Public. It wasn’t stealing just to steal either. I was driven by a need to escape into these books.
I don’t remember when I discovered Shakespeare, although I know it was in public school.
I recall that we saw a version of Midsummer Night’s Dream played out in the gymnasium. Instead of the action taking place up on the stage, it was staged in the middle of the large room, with we students sitting around the action on the floor, so we really felt like we were part of the action.
That must have been in grade 5 or so, because for Christmas when I was in grade seven my mother got me a two volume set of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I was absolutely enthralled. I can’t tell you that I read the whole thing cover to cover, but I made a damned good attempt. I was fascinated, with both the plays and the sonnets.
I remember relishing each and every book or play we studied in school: Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in The Rye, Lord of The Flies, Macbeth. Wonderful, each and every one of them.
When I was 17 I read The Hobbit and the succeeding Lord of The Ring trilogy. Entranced, absolutely entranced. Read them straight through, and remember crying my eyes out at the end, so shattered was I that Samwise got stuck back in the Shire at the end. Only later would I realize how necessary this was.
Reading became an active part of my adult life as well. I recall when I first read Robertson Davies’ Rebel Angels. It totally seized my imagination, and I read 9 of his books in a row. The remaining two in that trilogy (The Cornish Trilogy) and his other two trilogies, The Deptford Trilogy, and The Salterton Trilogy. Robertson Davies was as Canadian a man of letters as you can be. He was writing about his world, but he was writing about my world. It was exciting, and new, and old, and I recognized it, all at the same time.
The list of books is endless, Atwood, Robbins, Rushdie, cummings, Cohen, Blake, scores of biographies and poetry.
Books. An intricate part of my life, even up to today. Admittedly my reading has slowed somewhat, compared to what it used to be, but I usually have a couple of books on the go, both in Swedish and in English. Which is why it staggers me, disturbs me, and even frightens me, that it may not be so for the generations to come.
I may be over-reacting. I hope so, however I fear not. On a couple of occasions now I have marked that young people of my acquaintance, through friends and relatives, have a much lower level of literacy than I or my friends had at their age. I am not alone in this observation. Last year the BBC ran a fabulous series entitled Why Reading Matters.
The series talks about the hidden benefits of reading, such as insight into others’ lifes and cultures, and the way it rewires our brains. Of course all of this was before the riots in England that happened in the past week. By now it is well known that looters overlooked stores such as Waterstones. A Waterstones employee is quoted on their Facebook page as saying “we’ll stay open, maybe if they steal a book they’ll learn something.” A glib statement in the heat of the moment perhaps, but one that carried with it a mutltude of truths.