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What role have books played in my life?

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Books were read to me before I can even remember, before my first memories of life. I wonder what impact they had on me and on my growing brain. Were the stories being woven into my subconscious? It’s bizarre that even though my memories from that age are gone, when I see the front cover of a book from that time, I instantly recognise it and find myself smiling and happy, slowly running my fingers over the cover, half-remembering something that is slightly out of reach. This subconscious reaction to early books is strong and brings with it a sense of what I was feeling at the time. In this way, books are like music; they can transport you back in time either to when you first read them or when they were first read to you. They are our own personal wormhole into the past; a connection that is never lost.

I’m told that I learnt to read when I was two years old (I have no memory of this; my parents say that I was the driving force behind it. I was very enthusiastic, eager, insistent and never wanted to stop). As I grew a bit older, I gravitated towards books with main characters with whom I could identify. I was desperate to find at least one person in the universe who was exactly like me, even if fictional. I wanted to know that there were other people like me out there (I think that I must have felt very different to other people, very separate). I never found anyone exactly like me but I did find characters who were similar to me in many ways – kindred spirits.

This is a huge part of why I read and reread the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton over and over again; I’d finally found a kindred spirit in the character of Darrell Rivers. She was academically brilliant, great at sport, kind, good-hearted, hard-working but, crucially to me, alongside these things, she also had a great sense of fun and mischief, while also being responsible, sensible and dependable. I was so glad to have found her. From a young age, because of Darrell, I wanted to become the sort of person who would be made Head Girl. That was my biggest dream; to me, being Head Girl would have been the pinnacle of success and happiness. It would have meant that I had become the person that I always wanted to be i.e. a Good Person. Someone who was respected and loved by their peers and their teachers alike. So I both identified with and aspired to be like Darrell Rivers (apart from her temper). I think that she, more than any fictional character ever, affected me and influenced me most.

There were many books that I reread a lot from ages 6-11. These were my comfort books; familiar friends to which I could frequently come back and of which I never became bored. They were fairly typical ones: Enid Blyton (Malory Towers, St Clare’s, The Naughtiest Girl in the School), Jacqueline Wilson (my favourites were Double Act, The Story of Tracy Beaker, The Lottie Project), Gillian Cross (I loved The Prime Minister’s Brain), Roald Dahl (my favourites were George’s Marvellous Medicine, Matilda, The Twits and The BFG), Elizabeth Laird (Hiding Out) and Hilary McKay (The Exiles, The Exiles at Home).

However, I mainly read books that I got from the library. I loved choosing books myself. One day when I was about 10 years old, after arriving home from Prettygate Library in Colchester with a pile of my selection of books, my Mum told me that I should be reading more classics. This became a frequent refrain from her and although now I know that she was only trying to be helpful and stretch my mind, at the time it only served to push me further away from reading classic books. I didn’t like to be told what I should or should not be reading. All that mattered to me was whether I enjoyed a book or not. I couldn’t stand books that were boring! I didn’t see the point of reading a book that I didn’t enjoy just because it was labelled a classic. This attitude carried on into my teens. The only classics that I ever enjoyed were To Kill A Mockingbird, Little Women, A Little Princess (I found kindred spirits in Scout, Jo March and Sara Crewe), Lord of the Flies, Ender’s Game and the first part of Jane Eyre. Jane Austen was tolerable but I hated Shakespeare, Dickens and Hardy etc. They were awful. I didn’t understand anyone who actually enjoyed reading those books and read them for “fun”. They were so dull, stuffy, descriptive and tedious. The low point was definitely Jude The Obscure. I hated to not finish a book that I’d begun so I ploughed on and on but it just became so unbearably boring that I had to finally stop three-quarters of the way through.

So although I loved reading, I wasn’t the type of person who was willing to read anything and everything. I was very picky! I used to spend hours on most Saturday mornings (apart from the Saturdays when I was playing netball and hockey matches) from 12-16 years old at Lowestoft Library, poring through rows and rows of books, trying to find ones that I would actually like and adding them to my pile to take home. If you went into the adult section (as opposed to the children’s section), up the stairs and to the right, there was a long U-shaped nook of “teen” books. My choosing technique was to examine the back cover text to get an idea of the story and main character, then to read the first page to see if I could bear the author’s style; if I liked both, then I would add it to my pile. The teen section actually had a great mixture of genres.

My favourite genre had always been fantasy ever since I was 10/11 years old when I’d read The Wind Singer by William Nicholson and Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, which I thought were mind-blowingly amazing and I found more kindred spirits in Kess in the former and Lyra in the latter. They are still in my top 10 favourite fantasy series to this day. My parents had also read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Redwall series to my brothers and me when we were young but I have to admit, I wasn’t the greatest fan of these particular books (again, some parts were a bit boring) but I went on to find much better fantasy books.

Fantasy continued to be my favourite genre as I got older and I discovered some really great ones in Lowestoft Library: the Song of The Lioness quartet by Tamora Pierce (I found another kindred spirit in the character of Alanna. I admired her toughness, defiance of gender stereotypes and inner steel), Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones, The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, The Old Kingdom trilogy by Garth Nix, The Doomspell Trilogy by Cliff McNish, The Ropemaker by Peter Dickinson and Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. But I had phases of loving other genres too. There was a long time where I would hoover up what I called ‘nuclear fiction’ (i.e. stories involving either nuclear bombs or accidents at a nuclear power station and the immediate aftermath from them). My favourites in this category were Fall-out by Gudrun Pausewang, Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence and Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells. There was also a phase in my teens where I would gobble up every Agatha Christie crime novel that I could find.

I didn’t discover the Harry Potter series until I was 13 or 14. My younger brother had been raving about it for a couple of years but out of stubbornness and a reluctance to like anything that was popular (thank goodness I grew out of that; I would have missed out on lots of great things otherwise, just because they were popular), I hadn’t read them. When I finally caved, only the first three books had been published but I devoured them and was hooked. It took me a while to admit it though.

It was wonderful growing up in a time when the Harry Potter books were still being written. When a new book was released, it was thrilling that everyone was reading the same book at the same time and then feverishly discussing every part of it afterwards. This was unheard of. Nobody that I knew had ever read the same books as me before so I’d never had the chance to talk about books with friends before. In fact, before this, there was only one other person in my year group who read books at all because reading was considered very uncool and to-be-mocked. Harry Potter changed all that. It was exciting to speculate on who was going to die in the next book, to theorise about what would happen, to find potential clues in the previous books. I feel sorry for everyone who didn’t read the Harry Potter books during that heady time, who didn’t experience the fun of collectively reading them and the agonising wait for new books in the series to be published. For people who are growing up now, I imagine that it would be impossible to avoid spoilers and to not know the outcome of the books before reading them. That’s very sad.

I could write a lot more about my love for the Harry Potter series and the place it holds in my heart. It may be cliché but I think that they are my favourite books of all time. For me, the best one is The Deathly Hallows; it is perfection. Although, if I ever met J K Rowling, I think that I would probably touch my hand to my heart and whisper “Fred”. I’ll never get over that death; it was by far the worst for me. I can’t bear to think of his twin without him or the hole that he left in the Weasley family. Along with Hermione Granger and Professor McGonagall (kindred spirits both), Fred & George were my favourite characters.

When I was 16 we moved to a place where the nearest library was quite small (Woodbridge Library in Suffolk) and didn’t have a good selection of the kind of books that I liked. I resorted to browsing the shelves at Waterstones or WHSmith. I was very reluctant to part with my money (books seemed very expensive and a huge risk) and I was an extremely careful person with my money (I’m a saver not a spender) so a book would have to seem truly outstanding if I was going to take a leap and splash out on it. This is how I found The Gift by Alison Croggon, the first book of the Pellinor quartet. The gamble paid off and it was more than worth the money. I loved it and that series is now in my top 5 favourite fantasy series ever. Then when I was 18, I was completely blown away by The Black Magician trilogy and the Age of the Five trilogy, both by Trudi Canavan. After Harry Potter, they are my favourite two series ever. Amazing stories, amazing characters, amazing worlds. I was thoroughly engrossed and delighted. At around the same time, I read the first two or three books of A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones etc.) and I found them horrible and shocking (I was only 18!). I was torn between hating them and being sort of mesmerised by them. It wasn’t until seven years later that the television show was made and I’m still torn between closing my eyes most of the time whilst watching (I can’t stand to see anyone getting hurt; the violence is horrific) and being sort of mesmerised by the story. The books are definitely not in my top 10 fantasy series ever though. There are far better, less horrible, series out there.

Unfortunately, at 18½ years old, I became seriously ill and have been ever since. I’ve been unable to read books during this time due to being so acutely ill. I still am able to watch television and films sometimes though. A story is a story, whatever the medium, and there are some awesome TV shows that I’ve discovered.

The reason that I loved reading so much was the ability of books to transport me out of the present, outside of time, out of our “real” world and into a whole new world to experience first-hand the main character’s life as my own. It was a completely enveloping, engrossing, exciting and joyful thing. You got to live many different lives. When reading, the text disappeared, the pages disappeared, the book disappeared and I was teleported to the new visual world that the book was projecting into my imagination, which felt just as real as the world that I had just left. I was placed into a new body, a new person with new thoughts and feelings and was surrounded by new sights, sounds, and people. Brilliant.

It’s impossible to tell just how much of an effect the books that I’ve read have had on me. I strongly suspect that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.

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[NB I’m only able to write one or two sentences per day by jabbing out letters with my thumb on the screen of this iPhone, so the blog post above was written gradually over a long period of time.]

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For those who are interested:

My favourite fictional female characters: http://www.jkrowbory.co.uk/2016/07/my-favourite-fictional-female-characters/

A list of my top 10 favourite fantasy series: http://www.buzzfeed.com/stroopwaffle/top-10-series-of-fantasy-books-131a4

A list of my favourite books in my teens: http://www.buzzfeed.com/stroopwaffle/the-greatest-books-to-read-in-your-teens-131a4

A list of my favourite childhood books (ages 6-12): http://www.buzzfeed.com/stroopwaffle/the-104-best-childrens-books-how-many-have-you-r-131a4

A list of my favourite early childhood books (ages 0-5): http://www.buzzfeed.com/stroopwaffle/were-these-your-favourite-early-childhood-books-131a4

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About me:

All the things that you never wanted to know about my life with an acute chronic illness:
http://www.jkrowbory.co.uk/2016/05/all-the-things-that-you-never-wanted-to-know-about-my-life-with-an-acute-chronic-illness/

My most recent poems:
http://www.jkrowbory.co.uk/2014/10/ten-years/

Severe M.E. and me – my story:
http://www.jkrowbory.co.uk/severe-me-and-me-my-story/

Words that help me:
http://www.jkrowbory.co.uk/2016/06/words-that-help-me/

My greatest wishes on my 29th birthday (+ health update):
http://www.jkrowbory.co.uk/2015/04/my-greatest-wishes-on-my-29th-birthday/

My Favourite Things:
http://www.jkrowbory.co.uk/2013/11/my-favourite-things/

When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month or even your 8 years:
http://www.jkrowbory.co.uk/2012/12/8-years/

My buzzfeed listicles: http://www.buzzfeed.com/stroopwaffle

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