Immersed in words

I love books. In fact, I love words.

I grew up in a household without a TV (which, until it became socially unacceptable amongst my peers at about age 11, was great) which meant that as a child, I had to find my own entertainment.

I don’t know at what age I learned to read. I remember my sentence-maker at school, but can’t remember in which year or with which teacher. I remember my Mum sticking words all over the house, labelling everything so that I could see its word in context with the item. I presume this helped.

I was always something of a precocious reader as a child, and remember whizzing through the graded readers in class, always pleased to be moving up the scale. I also remember being very smug after a reading test where my reading level was reckoned to be about 5 years ahead of my age. Suffice it to say my age has long since caught up with my reading level, and I now enjoy a wide variety of books (some from childhood). I have hundreds on shelves, in boxes, stacked in piles waiting to be read and re-read.

There has been nothing significant in my life this weekend which has sparked ideas for a post (hence there was none yesterday) but today as I read, I thought about how important reading is to me, and thought I’d share passages from some of my favourite books and (as an exercise for myself) try to convey why I like the books so much. Those I feature are esteemed to the point that I always know where they are and have them accessible, so that I can re-read them at any time.

I have to say, reading is such a fundamental part of my life, there are areas where it almost feels necessary. I am now well and truly a member of that group of people who on occasion will find themselves reading lists of ingredients, instruction manuals, backs of cereal packets, clothes labels and the like, if there is a dearth of other reading material.

Words are my comfort and my friends. I love the look of them. I love being lost in them – absorbing them from the text and watching the images and ideas unfold in my mind whilst being barely aware of the physicality of ink on page or symbols on screen. Sometimes, when falling asleep, I even dream in words and I am aware on some level that I am falling asleep because the spellings of words in the book I am reading (in my dream) are becoming further removed from standard English spelling, yet make total sense to me at that time.

(A short caveat: I understand that not everyone likes words. For many people, reading is a chore and something unpleasant which must be undertaken in order to achieve a task. I am not unsympathetic, but this viewpoint is so utterly alien to my understanding, I probably often come across as a bit of a reading autocrat. I have a couple of friends who have only recently ‘gotten into books’. I encourage them as much as possible (little though I may approve of their choice of reading material) but their attitude to books does not resonate with me on any level and I struggle to be empathetic. I hope, seeing as you are reading this (and therefore must have an interest in the blogging world, otherwise you’d be on Youtube watching vlogs) that you will not judge me too harshly.)

Without further ado, then, the extracts, ordered as the books became part of my life.

1. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)

The moor was hidden in the mist when the morning came, and the rain had not stopped pouring down. There could be no going out of doors. Martha was so busy that Mary had no opportunity of talking to her, but in the afternoon she asked her to come and sit with her in the nursery. She came, bringing the stocking she was always knitting when she was doing nothing else.

“What’s the matter with thee?” she asked as soon as they sat down. “Tha’ looks as if tha’d something to say.”

“I have. I have found out what the crying was,” said Mary

Martha let her knitting drop on her knee and gazed at her with startled eyes.

“Tha’ hasn’t!” she exclaimed. “Never!”

 Possibly one of my most-read childhood books, this magical tale of the humanising of a lonely and impetuous young girl alongside the awakening of a hidden garden always brought me joy. I loved being transported to the moors of Yorkshire and ‘hearing’ the accent of the local people in the story. This book probably contributed to my love of hearing (and trying to imitate) different accents. It did not, however, instil in me any green-fingeredness. I kill plants with gay abandon whilst trying to work out what went wrong.

2. The Lord God Made Them All (James Herriot)

I stood, head bowed, leaning on my great guillotine which stood chest high. It occurred to me that my pose was exactly that of the executioner leaning against his axe as I had seen in old pictures of the beheading of Sir Walter Raleigh and other unfortunates.

However, I wasn’t wearing a hood, I was standing in a deep-strawed fold yard, not on a scaffold, and I was waiting for a bullock to be dehorned, not for a hapless victim to lay his head upon the block.

In the fifties, bovine horns quite suddenly went out of fashion. To veterinary surgeons and most farmers their passing was unlamented. Horns were at best a nuisance, at worst extremely dangerous. They worked their way under vets’ coats and pulled off the buttons and tore out pockets. They could whip round and bash the hand, arm or even the head of a man injecting the neck, and in the case of a really wild cow or bull they could be instruments of death.

More Yorkshire, this time courtesy of both my parents, who at some point had amassed James Herriot books. Concerned with animals, they held instant appeal to my young self and I lapped them up, reading and re-reading until the stories themselves became like old friends – Herriot’s time in the RAF, his return, the animals he chased and those which chased him. I missed the television series built around the books, but never felt I missed out because the books, in all their glory, were mine to consume repeatedly.

3. Birds, Beasts and Relatives (Gerald Durrell)

The party did not end till well after twelve. All the older guests had already made their way homewards on drooping donkeys. The great fires, with the remains of the sheep carcasses over them, had died in a shroud of grey ash with only a sprinkling of garnet embers winking in it. We took a last glass of wine with Katerina and Stephanos and then made our way sleepily through the olive groves silvered by a moon as large and as white as a magnolia blossom. The Scops owls chimed mournfully to each other and the odd firefly winked emerald green as we passed. The warm air smelled of the day’s sunshine, of dew and a hundred aromatic leaf scents. Mellow and drugged with wine, walking between the great, hunched olives, their trunks striped with cool moonlight, I think we all felt we had arrived, that we had been accepted by the island. We were now, under the quiet, bland eye of the moon, christened Corfiots. The night was beautiful and tomorrow, we knew, another tiger-golden day lay ahead of us. It was as though England had never really existed.

Utterly wonderful autobiographies of Gerald Durrell’s childhood in Corfu, having emigrated from England with his family. This book along with one other – My Family and Other Animals – were the initiation into the world of Durrell’s subsequent growing up to own a zoo; one which still operates now, sending out his wonderful principles of conservation rather than consumerism and a decent respect for the wildlife of the world and their habitats.

Blissfully different from life in England, vibrantly descriptive and packed full of some of the most outrageous stories of family life with interjections from the animals he amassed, Durrell painted a most beautiful picture of his sojourn in Corfu, and it remains one of the places I most long (and am most loth, because it’s probably so different now) to visit.

4. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (Alexander McCall Smith)

At the front of the house there was a verandah, which was her favourite place, and which was where she liked to sit in the mornings, when the sun rose, or in the evenings, before the mosquitoes came out. She had extended it by placing an awning of shade netting supported by rough-hewn poles. This filtered out many of the rays of the sun and allowed plants to grow in the green light it created. there she had elephant-ear and ferns, which she watered daily, and which made a lush patch of green against the brown earth.

Behind the verandah was the living room, the largest room in the house, with its big window that gave out onto what had once been a lawn . There was a fireplace here, too large for the room, but a matter of pride for Mma Ramotswe. On the mantelpiece she had placed her special china, her Queen Elizabeth II teacup and her commemoration plate with the picture of Sir Seretse Khama, President, Kgosi of the Bangwato people, Statesman. He smiled at her from the plate, and it was as if he gave a blessing, as if he knew. As did the Queen, for she loved Botswana too, and understood.

I was introduced to this series when it first came out, and have avidly read each installment as it has been published. They have a different rhythm to any other book I’ve read, and convey very well the differences between English culture and that of Botswana. I understand that the author is au fait with Botswanan life and culture, so I presume he has given an accurate rendition. At any rate, it’s enchanting, engaging and utterly engrossing.

6. Climbing the Mango Trees (Madhur Jaffrey)

I was born in my grandparents’ sprawling house by the Yamuna River in Delhi. Grandmother welcomed me into this world by writing ‘Om’, which means ‘I am’ in Sanskrit, on my tongue with a little finger dipped in honey.

Perhaps that moment was reinforced in my tiny head a month or so later when the family priest came to draw up my horoscope. He scribbled astrological symbols on a long scroll, and declared that my name should be ‘Indrani’ or ‘Goddess of the Heavens’. My father, who never paid religious functionaries the slightest bit of attention, firmly named me ‘Madhur’, which means ‘sweet as honey’, an adjective from the Sanskrit noun ‘madhu’ or ‘honey’. Apparently my grandfather teased my father, saying that he should have named me ‘Manbhari’ or ‘I am sated’ instead, as I was already the fifth child. But my father continued to procreate and I was left with honey on my palate and in my deepest soul.

My sweet tooth stayed firmly in control until the age of four when, emulating the passions of the grown-ups, I began to explore the hot and the sour. My grandfather had built his house in what was once a thriving orchard of jujmubes, mulberries, tamarinds and mangoes. His numerous grandchildren, like flocks of hungry birds, attacked the mangoes while they were still green and sour. As gown-ups snored through the hot afternoons in rooms cooled with wetted, sweet-smelling, vetiver curtains, the unsupervised children were on every branch of every mango tree armed with a ground mixture of salt, pepper, red chillies and roasted cumin. The older children on the higher branches peeled and sliced the mangoes with penknives and passed the slices down to the smaller fry on the lower branches. We dipped the slices into our spice mixture and ate; as our mouths tingles, we felt initiated into the world of grown-ups.

Culminating in many recipes spoken about in the book, I found the descriptions within the memoirs so compelling that upon completion I actually went and bought a take-away curry, feeling the need to connect in a more tangible way to the evocative descriptions I’d read. A beautiful book showing the progression from a childhood in colonial India, where picnics and family were thronged around, to the pain and desperation of partition. Woven in are threads of the historical and the religious, showing a wonderful glimpse into a life and culture I was not familiar with.

So much can be told about a person by what they read, I think – it gives insight into the aspect of their person which seeks to expand. Most of the books I have enjoyed most have had an element of the natural and of the human experience. A smaller proportion have been fictional, though many of these have had some of the same elements.

A few blogs I’ve read lately have touched on books and the blogger’s favourites or what they’re reading currently. I hope to see more, along with more on why these books are particularly important to those people.

2 thoughts on “Immersed in words

  1. I might look them up in the library sometime soon – I just got given a load of James Bond books – they're in my next 'to read' pile at the moment, but I do like Sherlock Holmes.

    Glad to hear there's some better news Re: Jennifer! I'll try to stay up to date


  2. love this post. Like you read early. My go back again and again fiction books are the Mary Russell books by Laurie R. King. They are “modern” Sherlock Holmes stories set around the 1910-1920. Language is beautiful. The other author I like is Kathleen Norris. Re-reading her Cloister Walk yet again. This is not fiction though. Slightly better news re Jennifer Fulwiler (very slightly).


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