Sunday, 5 October 2008

A Dangerous Pursuit?

When most people hear the word library, they imagine a dusty place full of books, quiet, librarians shushing and such things. When you think of reading, you think of a quiet, solitary pleasure.

Perhaps the last thing that reading and books and libraries and such like make you think of is danger, but I had a train of thought over a cup of tea which led me to the conclusion that indeed, reading is very dangerous indeed, in the way that an adventure or an expedition is made exciting by the edge of danger that runs through it.

I think perhaps that this is going to be the kind of post which calls for a cup of tea and perhaps just a small slice of cake on the prettiest saucer that you own. I have my cup of tea at the ready here, and am going to try and explain what I mean.

You see, I think that every time you read a book (or indeed a poem, and even blog) you are changed by it in some way. There are some books that I have been reading at particularly eventful times in my life, which will forever more in my mind be tied up with memories of that time. There are books that have challenged or changed my thoughts on particular subjects, books which have taught me a new skill, or a new recipe, or word, which I have gone on to weave into the fabric of my life.

Whether you love a book, hate it, or even remain indifferent to it, to some extenct, I believe that every book stays with you in some way, your whole life. Some you feel more than others. Some have created a powerful feeling in me, or created an atmosphere of some kind, which has stayed with me. There are books who have made me fall in love with the author, and I have gone on to devour everything else they have written.

Let me pluck some examples from my mind- since reading 'The Sweet Potato Queens' Guide to Love' I whip up a recipe for something called 'chocolate stuff' in times of stress or need of something homemade and sweet. Since reading Mrs Miniver, I always think of her when I see a particular kind of chrysanthemum. Since Reading 'Someone At A Distance' I think of a particular French woman whenever I hear the name 'Louise'. (Perhaps I should have named this post 'a particularly dangerous pursuit, with all my uses of the word particular'!)

I was reading Nigella's new Christmas book, and in one recipe she describes the ends of french sticks as 'the elbow ends' and I knew right away that I shall always think of them as such.

Now all this, and I have not yet got to the danger. You see, given that what we read has the power to stay with us, to change us, how brave we are to read at all, for so often we do not know what we are getting until we are in the middle or have finished with it. Oh there are various authors we suspect we will like, because we know how they write, or what they write about, but how did we discover them to begin with? We took the chance. I find it fascinating how different people can read the same book, and yet have very different reactions to it. It must be strange, as an author, to write something, and then have people interpret it in so many different ways. I heard a quote recently, that there are as many ways to God as there are people; perhaps as well, there are as many different versions of a book as there are readers.

I don't know if I have explained myself very well here. I think that reading is a joyous thing, and I love libraries and books and poems, and I love that little edge of danger too. I just has not seen reading in this kind of light before, I had not realised how brave you have to be to open yourself to being changed in some way, to not know exactly what you are going to get, but to believe enough to take the risk.

There was an advert on tv a few years ago now, where librarians were going crazy in the staffroom on their teabreak, and then break over (and chocolate snack finished) they straightened their glasses, patted their buns into place, and filed back out into the library all staid and respectable again. On their break, they were very different to their stereotypical image; in the same way, in a sudden flash of light, I have come to see reading as very different to its traditional image.

Still on the theme of reading and poems (aren't you glad you had that slice of cake now?) I have been reading the Sunday Times today, and found a fascinating article about poetry. The article is about teaching the love of poetry, and suggests that children should be taught poems by heart whilst at school. While I do love poetry, there are not many poems that I can claim to know by heart, so I want to rememdy this. I have been talking about poems with a friend recently, and being able to share poems has been really pleasurable.

So, now it is October, and I still have that back-to-school-feeling from September (although I am now going to call it a turning-over-a-new-leaf feeling!) I have decided to try and learn one new poem by heart a week. Here is my first one....I hope you enjoy it.

Autumn Day

Lord, it is time. The long summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
And on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruit to swell on tree and vine;
Grant them a few more warm transparent days,
Urge them on to fulfillment and press
The final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no huse now will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will sit, read, write long letters into the evening
And wander along the boulevards, up and down
Restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Rainer Maria Rilke


nancy said...

what a wonderful post. i absolutely understand what you mean about reading- it does change you, and there are definitely times when that *hasn't* always been the best thing, or books that made me feel angry or betrayed! of course more that i loved and made me feel joyful and understood, but as you say, one never knows the danger one might encounter.

and your idea of learning a poem a week is brilliant. i wish i could join you!

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog. I also love books and libraries. You have such a gift with words and have created such a cosy blog.