World Book Day 2015
Tomorrow is World Book Day 2015 and in response to a query as part of the World Book Day campaign, I’ve been asked by MVC to tell my personal story of how literature and books changed my life, and what inspired you to start blogging about literature.
Like most people I’ve been reading since I was about four years old. I can’t be sure when I fell in love with reading, I was very young. Two books stick out though, because they lived in my primary school bag and were re-read until they literally fell apart.
- The Facts Factory by Gyles Brandreth was a compilation of esoteric statistics and stuff that appealed to the small boy that was me aged about 8.
- The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier was the other. It told the story of a Polish boy and his family from the outbreak of the second world war to the aftermath in Europe. That, along with the Victor comic was probably the start of my fascination with history.
We were also keen library users. At the age of ten we moved house and the library was between the school bus stop and my front door. I was in there most days, and my tickets were maxed out. By the time I went to secondary school I’d read all the general fiction in the children’s section. The only stuff I missed was the stuff aimed at younger kids and girls.
When I was at primary school we had a project to write to an author and ask questions about a book we’d enjoyed. I wrote to Alistair Maclean, and got a reply which sadly I no longer have. The book was the Guns of Navarone, there was a copy of it at my Gran’s house alongside Carve Her Name With Pride. That latter sparked a lifelong interest in the SOE, so much so that my final assignment on the creative writing course was a story about an SOE operative hunting nazis in the rubble of post war Berlin.
High school was when I met literature, initially in the form of Shakespeare. There were lots of poems in the early years. I got very good at dissecting text and looking for meaning and underlying stories. Although even now I’m sceptical about a lot of the stuff attributed to some of the works I studied for O Grade and Higher English. Amongst others I read Graham Green, Eugene O’Neill, William Golding, and Tennessee Williams.
I was good at practical criticism and could do it on a first reading (the teachers made only two exceptions to their rule forbidding people from attempting it in the exam, me and a friend who went on to be a journalist and author). However this spoilt literature for me, for several years I couldn’t read serious fiction without trying to take it apart.
Reading for Fun
Outside school I was working my way through the adult library, with careful guidance from my mother to avoid me reading inappropriate content. I read lots of Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, John Le Carre, Alistair Maclean and Jeffrey Archer, but mainly I read the military history section. When I got my adult library card at 14 I read Tom Sharpe.
While at University (doing Science) I continued to devour books but a lot of it was nonfiction, and I discovered Terry Pratchett when he published his third book. I also read David Eddings, Asimov’s Foundation series and a load of classic science fiction short stories. It was all light hearted stuff in between the heavyweight material I was studying.
Once I started working I became aware that I’d barely touched the edges of literature. Some of my colleagues were English Lit graduates, others were just older and had absorbed the cultural stuff that literature provides. Coincidentally penguin started publishing classic fiction at knock-down prices, some of it was a £1 for a paperback (about a fifth of the price at the time). So I went back to literature and read a wide variety of the older cheap stuff. Austen I realised had one story repeated with the names changed; Kipling was a master of observation; Orwell was fantastically well observed too, and spoke to the inner flaws of humanity that lead ordinary people to do despicable things, and extraordinary ones too. I also got through some Conan Doyle, read Fanny Hill, Dracula, Frankenstein, Trollope, Dickens and quite a few others.
I realised that literature is in the eye of the reader, that some of the older works read very well, whereas others really don’t work for me (although you may well love them).
Reading Changed my Life
Reading is so much part of me it can be hard to see how it has changed my life. However without it I wouldn’t be me, and I certainly couldn’t have developed as a writer or a game designer. Nor would I have the same level of career success if I didn’t read.
Reading is my default entertainment vehicle, ahead of TV. I read on the train to and from work (when I’m not writing). If I need to do something new I go read about it. When I change jobs I read about the new work area, in the days when we had an office library I was a regular user.
Today I practically live in a library, there isn’t a room in my house that doesn’t have books in it. Even the garage is home to the stacks, 34 crates of books stored against the day I get to reclaim shelves back from the kids. I’ve also discovered that there is a practical limit to what a kindle will hold, you can only see 200 titles in the list (although the internal storage holds more than that).
Writing About Stories
Studying literature at High School gave me the skills to deconstruct text and summarise what it tells me. This also lead to my eventual understanding of a good story (although some of that came from the oral history passed down from the family).
Sometime in the last decade I started to review books for a club magazine, and also for Amazon. It didn’t take much longer to start blogging about it. The real turning point was my 40th birthday a few years ago. I realised that I was piling books up faster than I could read them, and my wife gave me 40 books for my birthday. I put them all on Goodreads.com and made a resolution to read 40 books in a year and to review them all. I managed to read 43 (but not all got reviewed).
In November that year I also decided to give NaNoWriMo a go and wrote a first draft of a 50,000 word science fiction novel. I realised that I enjoyed writing stories as much as reading them. I signed up for an undergraduate creative writing course with the Open University. I’ve learnt a lot more about literature, and I’ve written poetry and short fiction too. This blog also owes most of its content to that course, it moved from an ocassional post to three times a week as a result.
All because a small boy loved books.