Shelf life

‘Something in the world of literature we start off reading shows us a world which while sometimes scary is nevertheless still safe’

One of my godchildren has become a reader, and I have watched this development with delight. Of all the things that have given me pleasure in life, few have equalled — and none has surpassed — books. So it is a relief as well as a joy to see a habit that has brought such happiness to me getting acquired by someone to whom I wish such happiness.

Though rumbustious and sociable as any other nine-year-old, this godchild is never happier than when reading a book. Indeed, she can be contentedly left alone among them for hours. Recently, with the trepidation of any adult trying not to put a child off a good thing, I asked her what it was about reading that she liked so much. After a certain amount of bashfulness and “I don’t know”-ing, she suddenly said, slightly shyly, “It makes me feel safe.”

Perhaps I should stress that there is nothing in her life that should make her feel any more fear than any other nine-year-old. But the remark caught me. The sentiment I imagined her relaying was some variant of that given to a student of C.S. Lewis’s in the film and play Shadowlands: “We read to know we’re not alone.” But people — especially children — rarely do say exactly as you’d expect, and her remark struck me all the more for that. Because I both recognised the sentiment and had forgotten it.

The remark spurred me to remember the time when that feeling was there, when to pick up a book was to disappear into a world which was escape and yet security. Enid Blyton, obviously. The Hardy Boys, of course; eventually more grown-up fare. Books you could reread with pleasure as an adult: Just William, the Victorian classics, and more. They all had a certain number of things in common. What was it? The absence of adults, obviously. The attribution — in their absence — of adult powers and responsibilities to children. How thrilling to be able to catch a thief disguised as a tramp, or find the smugglers’ cave and capture the smugglers inside. It was all another world, made real by having occasionally glimpsed it.

Growing up in London, I had nevertheless caught sight of many of the places to which I escaped in books and which I wanted to hold on to. Once, BMX-ing in the Forest of Dean with my brother and a friend, the friend — a local boy — did two things that amazed me so much that they are still with me. The first was to pick fruit and eat it right off the branches of the tree on which it was growing. The other was that when we got thirsty he led us to a spring, cupped his hands and started drinking the water from them. It was like seeing through a portal. You can actually do this? Outside books? This seemed a transgression of literature into the real world, or the other way around. And in those early years of reading the possibility that the two worlds overlapped may well have been one of the attractions.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda captivated me from the moment that our heroine actually makes the chalk levitate and start writing on the blackboard. Like every other child you wonder: perhaps I might do that, if I concentrated enough. And — as the success of the Harry Potter books has shown — almost every child is drawn to the idea that the thing they sense about themselves, that something nobody else quite gets, would be amply explained once the dormant magical powers are revealed.

A couple of years ago some fraudulent school of psychic research in London shoved a leaflet through my door. They had updated their charlatanry to be comparatively up to date. A number of the classes — advertised quite seriously — were lessons in the use of wands. When I saw this I felt the tiniest memory-flicker, caused by the recognition that if I had been a child and seen this I would have had a moment of serious puzzlement and then hopefulness: “Can it be true?”

Something in the world of the literature we start off reading and gets us hooked must be because it shows us a world which while thrilling and sometimes scary is nevertheless still safe. The adults return or come back in some other way. An order exists, and is forever restored. And that is why my goddaughter’s mention of “safety” took me time to recall. I couldn’t remember reading to feel “safe” for years. What I realised was that for more than a quarter of a century I have read not to feel safe, but to approach, and confront, danger. At some point books moved from a place of safety to a place of danger, which is why next month I hope to write about the books which were so distressing that I wish I could unread them.

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