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Sadly, summer is fast pushing beyond us. However, I believe this should merely expedite our push to relocate somewhere verdant with a book in tow. It’s what I’m doing this very second.
So, for the second installment of my little summer series, I’m not sure where you are but I haven’t left the couch all week. Very satisfied after all seven seasons of the West Wing, copious amounts of Newsroom, topped off by Charlie Wilson’s War. I feel calmer and more inspired already. I have also eaten too much, but that is an occupational hazard of sitting on the sofa. And I am happy to say I will be here for another week or so. But this time it is with book in hand. You have to understand (I would like some violins here), I grew up without a television. For one, we didn’t have any money, but most of all my parents thought that it was important for children to make up pictures in their head instead of getting them prepackaged. So books were it. Or, if we were really lucky, stories told “from the mouth”, as I apparently called it as a two-year old: made up on the spot. Most of all, I remember my father reading. He was a troubled man, but when he sat down with a book he was calm, concentrated, serene almost. I remember thinking that they must be powerful things to be able to comfort my father that way.
So I was ready to go when I turned four. The first day of school would surely teach me to read, so I could get this life seriously started. Instead, I came home furious and disappointed and for the next couple of weeks badgered my mother to educate me herself. When she finally relented I went completely crazy. Suddenly I realised that everything, everything, had letters on it. Milk cartons, street signs, every bit of packaging in the shops, newspapers: there were words all around me. For a while, it seemed like my brain was going to explode. But then I got the hang of it. And it was bliss. My husband, who is a water baby, tells me that this was what he felt like when he learnt to swim – the knowledge that this is your element, your power base, your refuge and joy. For six or seven years I read every book in the children’s section of my local library. When I was done, I asked for special dispensation to be allowed upstairs, where adult books were kept. It took a while, and I had to pay for it by spending my Wednesday afternoons reading to the little kids, but as long as my picks were vetted first, I could read what I wanted.
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I wish I could still read like that. Completely oblivious of your surroundings, sucked into the vortex of these other worlds, other people, other realities and ideas. In summer, for instance, my mother would send us outside “to play”. In a country with very limited sunshine, outside was considered good for your health. So I took my book and sat myself down in a little hollow I had made under a few low-growing bushes. Out of sight, in splendid isolation. Heaven. Then I went to high school and was confronted with compulsory reading. I thought that was hilarious, at first, until I realised it meant reading tedious books and pulling them apart in even more boring critical reviews. Like it does with most people, it took my enjoyment away, and for the first time in my life, I started to hate reading.
But thank God for writers. During my years in journalism, I travelled far and wide to interview dozens of them. In order to do that, I had to read. And think about words, feel their weight and sometimes lightness, and try to understand the mind they had sprung from. It deepened my understanding, but lessened the abandon I could give to books. From now on, I was always holding a pen, writing in the margins. Questions, comparisons, ideas, annoyances, sometimes. That got worse when I did my PhD, trying to use Australian literature to understand the country I had just migrated to. It took the ugly language of academia, and for a while words made me physically sick. Until I needed them to give myself a place here, and to talk to you. Writing reconnected me with reading – and with the couch in summer (and any other time I can skive off).
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Last year my holiday joy was Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. Avoided for years because I’m not a fan of famous anything, let alone authors, I finally succumbed. And I was floored within five minutes. Almost six hundred pages of pure delight, it was like reading Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet for the first time: the richness of the language, characters who become people, your people, straight away, and the sadness when it ends. Now I have just finished Alex Miller’s The Passage of Love (oh boy!) and started Luke Slattery’s Mrs. M, about Elizabeth Macquarie and her lost dream to turn Australia into a bright utopia.
So far, so good. I’ll tell you about it when we talk again next week, when I will be dishing up my last summer story.
Trifle, I’m thinking, or maybe strawberry jelly. Potato salad?