I have always enjoyed reading. It’s one of the ways I relax and unwind. I turn to books when I feel unhappy, anxious or in pain, too – it’s good therapy for me. I remember burying myself in Audrey Niffenegger’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ (and really appreciated the recommendation, Janet) following surgery in 2005. I think it definitely helped my recovery.
Sitting in the sun reading a good book is my idea of bliss, and last weekend I did a lot of this (topping up my Madeira tan at the same time – a bonus!) I usually seek out good fiction, but one of the books I read at the weekend (I can manage a book a day on sunny days, especially when we’re on holiday) was ‘Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books’ by Cathy Rentzenbrink (thank you, Melanie), and this book contained a number of ideas which strongly resonated, for example:
“The very way that fiction works – the process of conflict and resolution at the heart of every story – means that novels are full of people encountering challenging situations and, usually, surviving them. Books are a masterclass in how to carry on.”
“Reading is respite care for the mind.”
I have been in several Book Clubs in my life – I’m currently in two – and often reread books I read at an earlier stage of my life as they’re recommended for Book Club discussion. It is always interesting to reread a novel I’ve encountered in the past and to reflect on what I’ve remembered about it, what hasn’t ‘stuck’, and how my response to it is in some ways different because of the passing of time. On several occasions I have reread (now in my sixties) books that I first read in the 1980s, when I was in my twenties. A recent example was Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’. It was striking that, although I didn’t have a clear memory of much of the novel (even though I’d enjoyed it at the time, and I loved rereading it), there was one exchange of dialogue in it that had stayed with me vividly for 40+ years. And rereading books and reflecting on how I have perhaps changed in my outlook over the years is fascinating. Cathy Rentzenbrink alludes to this when she says:
“Every book holds a memory. When you hold a book in your hand, you access not only the contents of that book but the fragments of the previous selves that you were when you read it.”
I pick up ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ and I’m back in that hospital bed.
I have spent a huge amount of my time reading over the years. As a child, for some reason I always preferred rereading a few seasoned favourites. ‘Heidi’ by Johanna Spyri, and ‘What Katy Did’ by Susan Coolidge, were two of them. I reread each so many times. So I didn’t read widely – although I read frequently – until my A levels, and then when I went to Manchester University to study English Language and Literature in the late 70s. The range of things we had to read as English undergraduates, and the speed at which we were expected to get through them, too me aback a little initially, but I soon got used to that, and I have read voraciously, as they say, ever since.
One of the aspects of my 30 years as an English teacher that I especially loved was the opportunity to share books I enjoyed and, I hoped, to encourage a commitment to the joys of reading for pleasure among countless students. The six schools I taught in were populated with generally willing readers, but I know for many English teachers this may not be the case. When I came across ‘Reading for Pleasure’ by Kenny Pieper it opened my eyes to the reality of teaching reluctant readers. Kenny stresses the importance of moving beyond teaching the mechanics of reading to modelling and fostering a commitment to reading as a lifestyle choice which can offer us so much and can definitely open doors for disadvantaged students. The opportunity to become absorbed in a different life, a different time, a different culture is something I relish. I always remember these words from George RR Martin (I loved the ‘Game of Thrones’ books so much):
“The reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who does not read lives only once.”
Back to this last weekend, the novel I enjoyed sitting in the sun was ‘Fresh Water for Flowers’, by Valérie Perrin (translated from the French – another great recommendation, Janet!), and I loved the comments about books and reading:
“Why do books attract us the way people do? Why are we drawn to covers like we are to a look, a voice that seems familiar, heard before, a voice that diverts us from our path, makes us look up, attracts our attention, and could change the course of our life?”
(I remember a friend on interview being asked: ‘Have you ever read a book which has changed your life?’ He couldn’t think of an example, and was aware of how feeble it sounded when he said, ‘No…’ I’ve always had a prepared answer to that question. But I’ve never been asked!)
And again, from ‘Fresh Water for Flowers’:
“I think how awful it would be to die in the middle of reading a good novel.”
Finally, as some of the readers of my blog will know, since the winter of 2019 I’ve experimented with writing fiction. I always wanted to know whether I could sustain the production of a novel – something I thought was well-written, carefully structured, and which said something worth saying about human relationships. Between November 2019 and the summer of 2021 I finished three: ‘The Dresser’, ‘#OneWord’ and ‘The Button Box’. Each is short – under 60,000 words. But I am proud of each of them, and am self-publishing all three in one volume. I’m still working on the paperback version, but the e-book is now out: Three short novels by Jill Berry. I very much hope that people will want to read them, discuss them, share them, and perhaps get in touch with me to tell me what they thought – whatever they thought! I hope these three short novels will give some people pleasure….
Photo credit: John Berry. Some of the novels on my shelves which have given me pleasure over the years – and the book cover is one of John’s photographs, too.