Some things get to be so much a part of one’s identity that it is impossible to trace the thread of memory back to the beginning, back to the initial taste of an entirely new experience. I wish I could remember when books first entered my world, but I cannot. Like the seemingly infinite existence of my parents, the omnipresence of words is so enmeshed within my personal history that there is no separating their being from my own. I never thought to describe myself as a reader because reading is as much a part of me as my humanity. I am Danielle, and I like words.
This business of words and their insistent presence in my world got me into trouble when I was younger because I couldn’t not read. If there were words about, I saw them and they went in. I read billboards, the nutritional information plastered to the tub of butter, pamphlets, the newspaper, and the back of the shampoo bottle in the shower. I was discouraged from reading at the family meal table, but I managed to get into trouble anyway: with a mildly exasperated sigh, my mother scolded me for sitting bent over my cereal bowl with my nose pressed to the back of the Weet Bix packet. There was nothing particularly exciting about the back of the Weet Bix box. It’s just that there were words there.
I read my way into serious hypochondria by devouring old copies of the Reader’s Digest that my grandmother left in her bathroom. At the back of each issue was a ‘Real Life Story’ and from these I came to understand that ‘Real Life’ actually meant ‘Here is a way in which I almost died.’ Once absorbed, those real life stories became my real life stories. Whenever something mysterious or unfamiliar afflicted me physically, I immediately recognised my symptoms as ones I’d previously read about, and I knew that I was definitely dying in a dramatic, Readers Digest-worthy way. One morning, my orange juice had a kind of metallic flavour – which was exactly the first symptom of one woman I’d read about who went into complete paralysis just a few hours after she’d downed the juice herself. She was trapped in her own body, unable to communicate to others just what was happening to her, and I was sure the same thing was happening to me. The era of my childhood consumption of Readers Digest was terrifying; I knew I should stop reading the magazines, but I couldn’t stay away.
Self-inflicted misdiagnosis wasn’t the only downside to obsessive engagement with words. Reading alone and figuring things out along the way meant the embarrassment of having a growing knowledge of the meaning of words, but little understanding of their pronunciation. When I marched out of my room one day to tell my mother I had been reading about Don Quixote – which I pronounced something like ‘quicks-oat’ – my mother struggled to keep a straight face. ‘It’s key-ho-tay,’ she explained to me, finally succumbing to the grin. Even worse was learning things I probably didn’t need to know by paying too-close attention to bumper stickers. If I couldn’t figure out the joke, the acronym, or the pun, the words stayed with me until I finally puzzled out their meaning.
Random words were enticing, distracting, and occasionally damaging. But it was the most intentional words – the words set down carefully line-by-line, the words that filled pages and books – that held the most allure for me. Books were enchanting in their promise. I loved the look of them and the feel of them between my hands. I loved the play of lines and shadows as they lay flat on the ground before my sprawled figure. I relished how the edges of the pages slid together and then fell apart to spread out in a fan of overlapping sheets, one after the other, each of the pages piled softly together and then swelling up into the curve of a wave before swooping down into the shadowed crease that was the opened book’s spine.
I remember only a little about pictures books from when I was tiny. At the limits of my memory’s reach – about early primary school age – there’s a small girl standing, impatient with picture books because they simply do not have enough words. Words, words, words were what I wanted, the more of them the better. Novellas insulted me with their economy of language, and I happily weighed books in my hands, feeling their thickness and the promise of their fullness. But in spite of my early bias against them (don’t worry; I love them now), there were certainly picture books that stayed among the favourites, even after I wrongly thought I had outgrown such things.
When I was four, my preschool teacher married and my sister and I were flower girls at her wedding ceremony. As a gift of thanks, she gave us each a bundle of new picture books, carefully inscribed on the inside covers in gold writing that delighted me. I still have the copy she gave me of the Australian picture book by Amanda Graham and Donna Gynell, Arthur. It is mouldy on the endpapers and the cover is grey and dirtied, but it must have been read hundreds of times. So, too, with Slippery Dip, an illustrated collection of C.J. Dennis’s poems for children. It was a gift from a family friend for my fourth birthday. And I still have my copy of Laurel Lee’s 1979 story Barnaby Frost. I haven’t read it for years but when I look at its cover, which depicts a scratchy black-and-white figure, a man on a bicycle trailing coloured flowers and vines in crazy profusion, I’m engulfed by the same half-intrigued, half-creepy feeling I had as a child when I read it. Years later, I still don’t know if I fully understand all the nuances of the metaphor of this alluring picture book, and I remain mesmerised by the glory and the power of the vine that overtook Barnaby’s life.
What is fascinating to consider, what I never pondered as a child but only think about now that I’m an adult, is this: all of the books that were so instrumental in shaping my earliest ideas of literature, every single one of them, were given to me. They were all gifts. It makes sense, of course. I had no capabilities for purchasing books of my own; I could not ferry myself to and from the library. My early exposure to books was totally reliant on the intervention of others who were, in a way, curators of the worlds I would encounter. This is a profound power, and when I consider how wisely – perhaps even unconsciously – it was wielded, I am thankful. I had a mother who thought books were important, and aunts, uncles, and friends who agreed. They declined to put age limits on literacy levels. I still have the copy of May Gibbs’ 200-and-some page novel, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, that my aunt gave to me on my fifth birthday. I am slowly collecting again the complete set of The Chronicles of Narnia that an uncle gave me when I was five or six, and which somehow failed to survive my periodic book culls. My parents gave me unabridged editions of Hard Times and Moonfleet for Christmas when I was ten or eleven, and fed in portions of the Anne of Green Gables or Billabong Books collections, one book at a time whenever my birthday rolled round. Their taste was excellent, and I willingly swallowed all they offered.
Once I gained the power of choice, however (along with that blessed delight, pocket money), I spent hours poring over the Scholastic book catalogue, negotiating the best possible value in book-weight per dollar. I spent all of that money on Babysitter’s Club books and its spin-off delight, Babysitter’s Little Sister. When I attained the prestige of my own library card, I borrowed various of the prolific Sweet Valley Twins library (fluff in any language), and ravenously consumed the entire Hardy Boys oeuvre. My mother made thoughtful suggestions and reminded me not to read things that would terrify me or haunt the nightmares I was prone to, but she did not mock my unrefined palate or laugh at my indiscriminate tastes. In one hand was Tiny Tim and the Ghost of Christmas Past and in the other hand was the blonde Joe Hardy, clinging to the edge of a crumbling cliff with Frank Hardy just minutes away in whatever muscle car the brown-haired high-schooler drove (yes, the hair colour of the brothers was oddly imperative to each text). But the disparity of my reading choices did not seem strange to me at the time; there was no value or quality assigned to the books I read. I just loved them all.
In writing of the difference between ‘good art’ and ‘less good art’, between ‘good taste’ and ‘bad taste’, C.S. Lewis says that the consumer of bad art ‘never re-reads’ (154). ‘What the patrons of the bad art clearly desire… is a pleasant background to life, something that will fill up odd moments, “packing” for the mental trunk or “roughage” for the mental stomach. There is really no question of joy: of an experience with a razor’s edge which re-makes the whole mind’ (Lewis 155). In my case at least, Lewis is right. Frank and Joe Hardy, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, Claudia, Stacy, Mallory and the rest of the Babysitter’s Club – all of them satiated some need (or even simply a desire) within me for stories that were constantly new and fresh and moved at a pace that was exciting. I could read one of those novels in an afternoon – but then I never needed to read it again. Norah of Billabong, on the other hand, was my breath for a while there. Whenever I came up for air between the end of one fluffy novel and another, I’d plunge into Mary Grant Bruce’s vivid pictures of 1930s Australian teenage life, or Ethel Turner’s late 19th century Sydney, or L.M. Montgomery’s dreamy Anne Shirley, constantly at war with her own imagination over on Prince Edward Island. The Babysitter’s Club stories, the Hardy Boys adventures, those frothy Sweet Valley Twins – all of those books have somehow disappeared from my collection. But the Billabong Books, Seven Little Australians, and the Anne stories are still there on my bookshelves, and I think this says something.
I was evangelical about the wonder of books and zealously tried to proselytize my sister, an athletic, practical kid who rebelled against sitting still for long periods of time and grew impatient with any tale that had not strictly, literally, actually happened. I would try to thrust a book upon her, attempting to tamp down my zeal in order not to scare her away. She stumped me time and again, however, with one question: ‘But is it true?’ I had to acknowledge that in a purely literal sense, no, the book wasn’t true, but I was unable to articulate why she should still give it a try anyway, why – in another sense – the book was true, even if the events and people within its pages never actually existed. Carol Shields writes that we ‘love fiction because it possesses the texture of the real. The characters in a novel resemble, more or less, ourselves’ (215). Good fiction feels true because it explores the universal truths of human existence, the shared intimacy of human experiences like loss and longing and gratitude and loneliness and courage and regret and love.
The truth of fiction is the reason I ran desperately and breathlessly with the boy in I Am David as he escaped the prison camp that had held him captive – even though I, in my happy middle-class childhood, had never had cause to truly fear for my life. The truth of fiction is why I felt that shiver of recognition run down my spine as I turned with Daniel in The Bronze Bow, and saw the man that people said would save Jerusalem. The truth of fiction is the reason my best friend cried and cried on the school bus (and was angry at me for loaning her the book) when Judy died in Seven Little Australians, even though Judy’s death scene, with its 19th century hymns and the now clichéd ‘shadow falling’ imagery, is melodramatic by 20th century standards. We felt those things because they were true things, because even though they may not have happened in our real, tangible world in precisely those ways, they do happen, every day. Every day, people fight to escape the things that enslave them; they look up and recognise the significance of an insignificant moment; people grieve loved ones lost to death or time or circumstance or simply to another person.
In this busy world of people rushing by consumed with their own needs and desires, there is not always room for us to express our deepest selves. If we are particularly blessed, there will be only a handful of people throughout our lives, perhaps even a dozen, with whom we can be the truest versions of who we are, people whom we can know truly and truly be known by. I am impatient even with this generous restriction, with the idea that we must bump along next to one another maintaining, for the most part, only surface-level contact. I am impatient, but I conform myself to the socially accepted norm because – well, don’t we all? But fiction does not stifle its depth in order to maintain social convention or to keep the boat from rocking. Rather, it takes a character or two or three and plumbs the depths of their selves. Fiction asks of its characters the sort of questions that propriety frowns upon; it thrusts its characters into extreme scenarios and forces them to be their most real selves – even though they are, of course, fictional.
There was – there is – more than just the satisfaction of depth of feeling within books, though. While books were making me feel what others feel, they were also helping me to see – see more, see differently, and see beyond the immediate. Michele Landsberg states that books ‘expand horizons and instil in children a sense of the wonderful complexity of life,’ that reading is ‘conducive to empathy and the enlargement of human sympathies.’ (cited in Lesnik-Oberstein 16). Annie Dillard expresses that reading was crucial for her in a similar way, aiding in the development of her self: ‘Almost all of my many passionate interests, and my many changes of mind, came through books. Books prompted the many vows I made to myself’ (148). In The Child that Books Built, Francis Spufford echoes the same idea, stating that books set us free ‘from the limitations of having just one limited life with one point of view; they let us see beyond the horizon of our own circumstances’ (10). Books worked a similar power over me. As I read, the world grew bigger; I was able to know others just as I was starting to know myself. While I was engaged with a book, I was no longer only me. I was also Jo March, sobbing and laughing over her shorn head, the loss of her ‘one beauty’. I was the young boy Phillip, blinded and adrift on the ocean in The Cay. I was Heidi, slowly, slowly winning over the crusty stranger who was apparently her – my, because I was in her place – grandfather.
This promise of broadening one’s horizons is a lot to place on a hobby that sometimes looks like a small, lanky child sitting cross-legged on the floor staring at paper. Reading can be incredibly self-centred because it can close one off to the present. And readers can be jerks, just like anyone else. I know this because my own jerky nature asserts itself on a semi-regular basis. But if there is any kind of insurance that somehow promises to help one be less of a jerk (to people who are different, to life stories that bear no resemblance to our own), I think books are ripe for this task. Books can teach us to be more sensitive, more empathetic, to ask ourselves, “How would that feel?”
‘We can remember readings that acted like transformations. There were times when a particular book, like a seed crystal, dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a supersaturated solution, and suddenly we changed’ (9).
Possibly, Spufford is thinking of books that connected deeply with him on a philosophical or ideological level. But for me, the connection was at the heart level, and the moment came in reading Little Women during a family holiday at my cousins’ home. Their bookshelves were always in a delightful, profuse mess full of promise, and I found a copy of a tiny fat edition of Little Women which I took to bed with me. It warmed me and pulled me in. After that, I read Little Women every time I visited, until eventually it occurred to me that I could buy my own copy with my pocket money. It was only after I’d done so that I realised I’d been reading a rather stupidly abridged version, and the original classic delighted me with its extra details and its beautiful wording. Nowadays I can recognise that Little Women is rather dated and more than a little preachy, but I still feel the same love for it that I felt back then, and I have read it dozens of times. It is my go-to book when I want to immerse myself in something as cosy and familiar as my own family, when I am stuck awake at night with a headache or worries that replay themselves like a horror movie stuck on a continuous loop. I dip into its pages, find a favourite passage, and relax into the kind familiarity.
My memory is sketchy, but I think Little Women was also instrumental in my entrée into writing. Its existence provided the happy realisation that events do not have to be fantastical or beyond the realm of reality in order to draw one in. Books do not require smugglers or secret passages to make them exciting. Barnet and Cain assert that ‘learning to write is in large measure learning to read’ (8), and this certainly rings true in my own experience. Reading books like Little Women automatically overflowed into wanting to write them, even when I was small. I wrote my first poem when I was four years old. Hi, my name is Dot / I am a robot, is ostensibly what I was communicating. I wrote it, however, as HMNMSDTMRBT. Vowels and spaces were not so important to me back then. The real stuff, though, began on my eighth birthday when my parents gave me a little tan faux-leather journal. From that day, I began to write regularly, boldly prophesying on the first page that my thoughts would someday become famous, ‘like in The Diary of Anne Frank.’ (I’m happy to report that I was wrong about the fame thing.)
From there, I moved on to ‘books’ and ‘magazines’, the latter no doubt inspired by the March sisters and their own reinvention of the Pickwick Papers. In Through the Looking Glass: Further Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature, Selma Lanes writes that ‘simplification, or myth-making, is one of childhood’s natural gifts. It is the young child’s earliest means of making sense out of things that happen to him’ (30). I spent ages as a kid of about eight or nine writing stories that childishly tried to grapple with real life. I wrote them on lined binder paper and stapled them together to make them into books. They were stories of everyday people, but they also wrestled with the hard things in a zealous, fumbling way. After my grandfather had surgery to remove a serious skin cancer, I wrote about a little girl who died because she wouldn’t wear sunscreen. I wrote gothic-style musings about the burnt-down house that was in the paddock next to ours and was rumoured to have been set alight by a jealous lover while his adulterous wife was still inside.
Reading automatically flowed over into writing for me, but learning to read was also instrumental in learning to see. I ate up the romance of Lorna Doone, dove right into the seaside adventures of Swallows and Amazons, and swallowed whole without chewing the fantastical journey of the Pevensie kids into Narnia. I am envious now of the way I was able to fall so readily into these books. It is a skill that I have lost touch with as I have grown older and the adult world intrudes with its deadlines and daily to-do lists and phones that chirp and hum with alerts all day and through the night. That kind of immersion is something I must fight for nowadays, because I think it was healthy. It was not escapism for me; in fact, a part of me saw that I was having one of those magical, imagination-flooded childhoods that nobody knows they are experiencing until they’re over. I believe books helped me see that.
By reading about the adventures in others’ lives, by plumbing the depths of their emotions, I was awakened to the adventure in my own life, able to dig down more easily to my own deepest feelings. The cows that escaped from the dairy across the road and were set free to roam wildly over the highway, the cemetery up on the hill with its haunting stories and bushranger gravesite, the sad drunk hammering on the front door of our home late at night – all of them were adventures that I got to live, and slowly my eyes were opened to the fact that each of our private worlds contain whole stories inside them. By discovering truth in the wintry home of a small faun, in a chalet on the side of a Swiss mountain, or cheekily parodied in the mannerisms of Dickens’ quirky characters, I was also shown the truth in my world – the world of a bookish kid living on the outskirts of a coal-mining town in rural New South Wales, a world dominated by bushfire summers, frostbitten winters, and the yearly joy of the school book fair. Reading showed me life beyond the confines of my small existence, but it also helped me recognise the story in my every day. Reading led me into writing, certainly, but it led me into seeing first.
- Lewis, CS. Of This and Other Worlds. Michigan: Collins, 1982.
- Barnet, Sylvan and William E Cain. A Short Guide to Writing About Literature. Boston: Pearson, 2012.
- Lanes, Selma. Through the Looking Glass: Further Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature. New Hampshire: David R Godine, 2006.
- Lesnik-Oberstein, Karin. “Essentials: What is Children’s Literature? What is Childhood?” Hunt, Peter. Understanding Children’s Literature. London: Routledge, 1999.
- Shields, Carol. “Opting for invention over the injury of invasion.” Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times. New York: Times Books, 2001.
- Spufford, Francis. The Child That Books Built. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.