- - Sunday, September 27, 2015



Edited by Antonia Fraser and Victoria Gray

Bloomsbury, $18, 368 pages

We must be grateful to Antonia Fraser for giving us this insightful collection of writers telling us of the particular pleasures they have found in reading. Although at first glance, this seems a very British group, she informs us that “the countries in which they were brought up include Canada and China, Ireland and India, New Zealand and Nigeria, Syria and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), even Germany during the 1930s forty-three writers whose dates of birth range over eighty-five years.” So there is nothing parochial or chauvinistic or limiting about this delightful glimpse into how these people read and how that shaped the kind of writer each became.

Inevitably, people will go first to their favorite authors in this book, but wherever you look there are treasures aplenty. Brian Moore blesses the uninspired teachers at his Irish boarding school for making him learn by heart the marvelous poetry of Shakespeare, but reading James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway on his own connected him with the wider world and awakened in him the sense that he too was a writer. A.S. Byatt tells us that she “spent much of [her] childhood in bed, reading. I was handicapped, set apart, greatly blessed by very bad asthma,” which not only gave her an affinity with that other bedridden writer Marcel Proust but allowed her to cultivate the imaginative powers she has used to such great effect in her own work.

John Mortimer of Rumpole fame used books for comfort at “a boarding prep school. It was thought that I needed company, but at school I endured a loneliness which made my life as an only child in what was then the remote countryside seem over crowded. Books were not a luxury, but a necessity. I desperately needed to inhabit another world, far away from the icy dormitories, the bleak changing rooms that smelt of dirty gym shoes, and the numbing boredom of organized games. I wanted a brighter, more adventurous, funnier and more elegant world; above all I wanted to be a hero, something I was certainly never going to achieve on the soggy north Oxford playing fields.” For Mr. Mortimer, as for so many in these pages, books represented opportunities and aspirations, role models and counter examples. Authors and their characters offered separate but equally important ladders of aspiration: to be a writer but also to be the multitudinous kinds of people found in books but often absent in real life surroundings.

The contrarian nature so evident in children as they develop and chafe against the confines of their environment is evident in many writers here. Mystery writer Ruth Rendell bluntly states: “I never really wanted to read anything my parents wanted me to read.” Already reading grown-up stuff and in love with myth, whether Classical Greek or Norse, A.S. Byatt found herself impatient with children’s literature: “What I didn’t like was children, though I read a lot about them, faute de mieux, because I read too fast not to. I didn’t like being a child and I didn’t like being with imaginary children.” And that arch-contrarian Doris Lessing does not disappoint in this regard, boasting “I began reading at seven, off a cigarette packet.” But she goes on to offer up a passionate paean to how books were her real mode of education: “Because I left school when I was fourteen, a drop-out before the word was minted, I educated myself through reading. An autodidact. An ugly blocky little word for a free-ranging unhedged condition.”

For some writers here, reading was actually a subversive activity. Characteristically, Germaine Greer proudly proclaims that “Reading was my first solitary vice (and led to all the others). In rural Ireland, Edna O’Brien’s mother, “an artist, I do believe, in her own right, disliked books, particularly disliked fiction, believed it was redolent of sin . In our village there was no public library, yet I was in love with writing before I was acquainted with it, a pre-love if you like. Jeanette Winterson’s mother was so hostile to her daughter’s love of books — “‘The trouble with books,’ she said, ‘is that you don’t know what’s in them till it’s too late’ — that she approved of her working at the public library. “Because she reckoned that I couldn’t read and work at the same time I think too that she hoped that simply being around books would cure me of my obsession for them, rather in the way that retired astronauts are advised to lie and look at the stars.” But of course she did read there. At home, so much of that beloved pastime had to be done in the bathroom that as an adult she delights in having no books in hers — because she no longer needs to.

What emerges most clearly from these accounts is that for these writers, reading was an escape from the various straitjackets of their quotidian existence. As much magic carpet as passport, it showed them the possibilities of life and art and we, their readers, are immeasurably enriched by what it unlocked, inspired and unleashed in them.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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