The reader

Other people’s words about … books

She has always been the reader — no-one else in the family is that interested. She had carted her books from house to house as a student, the boxes growing in number each time, keeping them because she could not imagine doing otherwise, and because she thought that there was something permanent in a book, that it lasted forever. But now, when she takes an older paperback out to reread or loan, she is surprised at how fragile it has become, the paper threatening to tear in her hands if she turns the page, tiny black specks embedded in its tissue pages; bugs, probably. She should have cleared them out, she thinks. Packed them up in boxes for recycling. No-one would want them when she was gone.

From ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain

I grew up in a house in which every room contained a bookcase or a wall lined with bookshelves. I remember kneeling in front of those shelves as a child, scanning them, trying to make sense of the order in which they had been shelved, trying — with a child’s sense of incomprehension — to understand the titles. There were lots of orange paperback spines (oh, those old Penguin classics!). There were fat, hardback dictionaries — volume after volume of them. There were thick novels with white covers and raised lettering. There were books with titles like Fear of Flying, which didn’t seem to be about flying at all. There were books with titles containing words like ‘teach’ and ‘literature’ and ‘linguistics’ and ‘semantics’.

And none of these books had pictures in them.


I made a vow when I was about seven or eight years old that I would never, ever read an adult book. The books on my parents’ shelves seemed to be about — or to come from — a disturbing adult world: a world of which I knew I wanted no part. And so the first time I read a book without any illustrations, I felt half-proud, and half-afraid. Was I crossing over to adulthood now, after all? Could I stop myself? It seemed not. Reading, in the end, was more than just enjoyable: it was essential.

As a young woman, I lived for many years in a series of rented houses and share households. My housemates and I each had our own bedroom, but we shared saucepans and bowls and TVs and washing machines. We talked about the films we wanted to see, the music we liked to listen to, the books we had just read. We cooked for each other and shared bottles of cheap red wine and chardonnay. We borrowed novels from the local library, and bought tattered secondhand paperbacks from the local op shop.

During those years, I stored any books I owned on a makeshift shelf that I’d constructed by putting bricks on my bedroom floor and laying a plank of wood over the top of the bricks. Later, I went through a phase where I decided that lettuce crates were a cool way to store my books. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a proper bookshelf. I was afraid, I think, of making the commitment. A bookshelf spelled permanency. It spelled adulthood. It spelled turning into your parents. I wasn’t going to do that. (Why, I wonder, are we so fervently against turning into our elders when we are young? Now I would be honoured to think I was, or am, like either of my parents.)


I don’t remember exactly when I gave in to owning a bookshelf: to growing up, to admitting, happily, that I shared my parents’ passion for literature. I am glad that I did, though. The books on my shelves may one day fade, their pages tearing, their covers warping with damp. They may seem meaningless to anyone else. And yet there is something permanent in them: there is something that lasts forever, despite their physical frailty.

Reading transports to you another world: a world of someone else’s creation. It makes you feel things — sadness, joy, anger, bewilderment. Writers share their worlds with us; their books are their gifts. Those gifts leave an imprint on us. You can’t store that imprint on a plank of wood resting on a brick. You can’t stack it in a lettuce crate. And you certainly can’t pack it up and recycle it.


7 thoughts on “The reader

  1. Love this post Rebecca. There is something about a wall of books that I used to find so comforting. It was a kind of richness. But I read Marie Kondo’s Art of Tidying book and realized I was never going to read most of them ever again. (I still had books from college: mid-70s!) My kids wouldn’t want to deal with them, so I started culling them. Sold some, donated others. I still have lots of books, but there is more space in the shelves now. Surprisingly (or not), I don’t miss them at all. 🙂

    1. I regularly cull my books, too, Eliza. I keep only the ones that really ‘speak’ to me (but as I grow older, I find that more and more books do exactly that … ). The books I don’t keep, I donate to my local library, where they either get accepted into the library system for borrowing or sold on as secondhand books to raise funds for the library. Either way, I feel I have passed them on into good hands 🙂

      1. I know what you and Eliza mean. I’ve just returned from the Oxfam Bookshop…buying not donating–unfortunately, for my shelves!

  2. I had a similar reaction as a child, finding adult books too factual–a closed world. I would never grow up, I vowed. Well, I haven’t. Books keep me interested in being alive.

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