My love of books stemmed from when I had my first library card at about two years of age. In fact, we didn't have library cards then, but small cardboard “pockets” with the reader’s name and address printed on the front. You would hand your “pocket” to the librarian with your book, and she would slip the card from inside the book into the pocket, which then went into a file on the desk until you returned your book and you were given your little pockets again, ready to take out another couple of books.
Every Saturday, my mother would walk into the town two miles away, pushing an old-fashioned heavy pram with my brother tucked up inside, and me seated on top, legs dangling under the handle, or I walked alongside until my little feet ached. As we made our way up the road, my mother would stop at neighboring houses to collect library books from the elderly folk who lived nearby, and she would take “orders” for them. Most of the time she was told, “Oh, you know what I like, dear – you choose.” My brother would end up squashed up against the pile of library books at the end of the pram!
I quickly learned that there were all sorts of books and that everyone liked something different–Mr. Kilby’s Westerns, Mrs. Croft’s mysteries, and then there were the Angelique books that Miss Oliver seemed to eat up! Mum would choose books for herself and my father, and I was allowed to select my two books, so it was clear to me that the ability to read and to be excited about reading was non-negotiable. It was just what we did.
My ah-ha moment came when I read The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was about 15 at the time. Until then I had been raised on a fairly solid diet of British classics. I’d read my share of mysteries – the first was The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey, and of course I’d delved into the cheap paperback thrillers that were passed around at school (The Godfather automatically fell open at page 19).
But Gatsby changed everything for me.
The language was so spare in places, and I loved the way he wove a scene with metaphor, describing, “swirls and eddies” of people at a party (I don't have a copy on my desk as I write this, so that might be a bit wrong). I could clearly see life among the “ash-heaps and millionaires,” and who doesn’t wish they could have created Gatsby’s green light? That was it for me – I was off to the races. I read everything by Scott Fitzgerald, followed by Hemingway, then John Dos Passos. Then I read them again, having completely fallen in love with a whole era of writers. Even now, I find it interesting that Gatsby was published only three years after The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy—it might as well have been half a century.
This “Writers on Reading” essay was originally published in “At the Scene” enews April 2018 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.