Tuesday, October 18, 2005

light in the darkness

It comes as a bit of a shock that it's been two months since I posted here… That's what finishing a Ph.D. while selling coursebooks to thousands of students will do to yer desire to read, write and converse with human beings, even invisible ones. But now I've been released -- or put out to pasture. Never again do I have to read Judith Butler! I can just pretend to. Begone scholarly journals. Pah.
So what does a doctor read for fun? Well, my strongest temptation at the moment is to assemble a big pile of Geraldine McCaughrean books, having just been dazzled by her latest, Antarctic adventure The White Darkness from the vantage point of a warm comfy sofa in Reykjavik (not the one in splendid record store 12 tonar or the cafe in Sufistinn, probably Europe's only Sufi-inspired coffee shop [in the Mal og Menning bookstore]).
But calling The White Darkness an adventure novel is like calling Reykjavik a smallish European city. It's true, but it doesn't get to the detail, the splendour of language and character that marks it out from other children's fiction. I have a very vivid memory of reading A Little Lower than Angels (one of her first books) when I was six or seven. We used to have a Book Club in school, like the Book of the Month club or QSP. I think it was called the Red House. It was one of my favourite things about school: getting the flimsy leaflets with bright pictures of book covers and tantalising hints of the stories hidden within. Then there was the agonising process of checkmarks (how much pocket money do I have? Lavish picture book or cheaper story book? Favourite author or untried newbie?) and the loooooooooong, endless wait for the packages to arrive. Names were called out and then the reading could begin. Anyway, A Little Lower Than Angels was one of those books. I can picture the fey, wispy watercolour cover and hear the beginning of the story (in a medieval market town) in my head. As I can't remember the names of most of my primary school teachers, that's quite a feat. Books are probably my most vivid memories of childhood -- the order of spines on my bookshelves, the texture of different papers and covers (leatherbound classics with shiny paper, paperbacks with grainy beige paper and large lettering like Little Lower, picture books that were landscape rather than portrait). And the frisson of opening a new book -- where will I go this time? How far away will I get? With whom? What next? No wonder children love serial books -- the idea that the world you have visited isn't over, that you can meet the characters again, not be forced back into the real world.
Not much has changed ;) Except now I can buy whatever books I want, and the New York Times books section has replaced the Red House (Brick House?) leaflet. I still use the local library system (which includes the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books for an afternoon of truly atavistic pleasure) and when I'm sad or sick, my first instinct is to hunt out a book that reminds me of being a pre-teen, snuggled up in bed with soup and a fever, reading fantastic adventures. And I still love serials. My great treat in the lacuna between this posting and the previous one was to re-read the entire Strangers in Paradise series. Talk about living with characters! Comics offer an even more intense pleasure than the longest series of books (say, Oz). Month in, month out (or every six weeks in the case of Terry Moore's now so-familiar Strangers). Growing, changing, flipping back and forth in time, telling stories in different art forms, from different perspectives. The comic serial seems to free writers up where the book serial bogs them down (challenge that one, posters!).
So delirium's bookshelf of the old-new, the forgotten and the found beckons. But the memories of childhood pleasures beckon even stronger, a desire to re-read, relive, perhaps change. To read with the intensity, the ferocity of a child. In fact, some of the best conversations I have about books are with my friend Helen, who will be 9 next month. She has an eye for detail and a sense of ethical behaviour that make her the reader I think of when I write. It's fascinating to imagine how she will look back on the books that she reads voraciously -- books I've given her, books she's shared with me -- when she's older. What will it be like, I wonder, to re-read His Dark Materials as a teenager, having read it when you were 7?
Which reminds me that I should be sending her a copy of The White Darkness for her birthday, so we can talk about it the next time we meet -- surely the reader's second greatest pleasure…