How books shaped my life.
my personal book reading history. I’ve read books as long as I can remember. I have no memory of going through any reading lessons. No doubt I went through the usual ladybird Janet & John style reading books, “See The Dog Chase The Ball” style repetitive picture books, and such, but the earliest book I can remember reading was a book on Icelandic whaling called Greenland Seas. I’ve not been able to find the author’s name or a copy of the book since. It was a non-fiction study of factory ships and whale hunting in bulk. It was not anti-whaling, but addressed the process of cutting whales down, and starting to cut them up for the various products the meats and oils could be used for. It was fascinating. I had started reading the book during a hospital stay when I had my tonsils out. I was about eight. Visitors or a previous patient had left it, and I just found it lying around. It was a heavy read, but I persevered with it, and found myself asking nurses or my visiting parents what the words I didn’t understand meant. I hadn’t finished the book when I was well enough to come home, so I stole the book away to finish it at my leisure. My parents bought me a basic dictionary, which let me read big books without having to ask what the words meant any more. From thereon in, I was a compulsive reader. At school we did the usual standard reading texts, especially C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. I was enthralled by The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and frustrated when the readings out loud were by the kids with slower reading paces. I had read ahead and finished the book on my own, rather than waiting for the chapter per class rate of reading that meant the book took a whole term to get through. We went on to read Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men and The Red Pony; two of my favourite reads ever. Books and book vouchers became standard birthday and Christmas presents for me, and someone bought me a copy of Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, which I loved, though I was infuriated to learn that the edition bought for me was ‘abridged’ for junior audiences. I made a point of getting the proper full text edition ASAP. TV tie-in books were common presents, especially Star Trek & Dr. Who Books. My parents always hated the science fiction TV shows I liked, (at a time when we only had one TV in the house), so I ended up missing many of the episodes, and made up for that by reading the books. I often took copies with me to parties and even on holidays. If bored at the evening entertainment, I’d sit in the corner glued to a book. Bookworm inevitably became one of my nicknames.
By twelve I was wearing glasses, and terrified of going blind. My Mum teased me that I was straining and wearing my eyes out through reading too much. I would often read by torchlight long after my bedroom light was due out.
Front cover art from my now out of print poetry book Dreams take Flight, – cover designed by artist SMUSS.
My Cthulhu costume – what happens if you read too much H P Lovecraft
COMICS Comics were a big thing with me too. My sister and I both had weekly comic and magazines to read. Look-In, the children’s version of the TV-Times was one of mine, as were the Beano, Dandy, Whizzer & Chips, etc. I grew to love the cinema so I fazed out the junior comics for a film magazine called Photoplay, which was very popular, but price increases and lowering quality soon put me off it and soon after I stopped reading it the magazine went out of print. I was discovering new films from the trailers at the cinemas anyway and from TV film-criticism shows like Clapperboard. Besides, I had a new and exciting comic book series to follow. Marvel comics featuring Spiderman & The Fantastic Four, Hulk, X-Men, etc, had been out for years in the States, before the launch in the UK of our own editions in the 1970’s. I discovered Marvel before DC comics. I soon ended up with a wardrobe full of them, and had many first editions, though I wore them out through over-reading. When she wasn’t looking, I even read my sister’s Jackie comics, which often carried interesting comic strip SF stories of their own. If challenged I told her that her choice of reading was soppy and girlie.
Most books bought with my own pocket money were from second hand markets and charity shops. My Gran used these a lot too, and often gave me the task of picking up Mills & Boon romances for her from the traders on my way to visit her (which I did most weekends). She often gave me extra money to buy a few titles for myself too.
THE ATHEISM YEARS When I was about 12, I picked up a book with the blurb, ‘This book could change your life’. It did. It was Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. The reason it changed my life was its cynical hard edge and its prominent use of atheism. The concept of not believing in God was alien to me. My parents were lapsed Catholics, but they sent my sister and myself to Catholic saint schools (St. Patrick’s and St. Dunstan’s). That God was in his Heaven and the creator of the world had been a fact to me until reading Catch-22. The moment I thought of it I embraced disbelief, my conflict with organized religion was engaged. I cheerfully upset the priests and teachers by challenging their beliefs directly in class. I was even threatened with expulsion for spreading such dissent and some students found my arrogance shocking. I started getting beaten up a lot. My parents realized that I should go to a secular school for High School rather than to St. Gerard’s with the other kids from St. Dunstan’s (including my sister). I went to Moston Brook. While religion was still part of the school curriculum, and we had to attend religious assemblies by law. It wasn’t as enforced as at junior school, and the reading studies were wider ranging. One of our teachers actually encouraged reading for fun to the point of opening a bookshop in the school. When I bought and loved a copy of The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes so much she personally ordered copies of all the other Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes stories for me, enabling me to read the rest in the order they were written. About this time, I also discovered serious science fiction. A second hand copy of one of Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter Of Mars series really fired my passion for all kinds of science fiction and fantasy. My Mum’s sister decided I was overdue to read Tolkien, and she bought me a copy of The Hobbit. From then on, the books I exchanged with my Aunt Pauline, on birthdays and at Xmas, or just in second hand copies we swapped on various visits, became my most treasured reads. That was so right up to her death by cervical cancer in about 2005. I was always a member of the public library too, naturally though I hated taking books back once I’d finished with them. I felt like the books I liked were mine, not theirs. I discovered Horror at about 15, when I got a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and I was amazed at how different it was to the Hammer films I’d been watching for a few years, but I went on to read any horror titles in my reach. Stephen King, James Herbert and especially H P Lovecraft became big influences on me. I would go on to dress as a Cthulhu at every opportunity in my adult SF convention attendance days. I hated school reading classes, called ‘Comprehension’. We would get extracts from books and poems and have to dissect them. They ruined my appreciation of poetry for years. I actually hated verse. It was a chance viewing of a TV show early one morning that re-opened my love of poetry and spoken word readings. Someone was reading Dylan Thomas’s poem, ‘The Hunchback In The Park’. It converted me to poetry love instantly and remains my favourite poem ever. Soon after that, books got me into big trouble, in 1991, when I got chatting to a book dealer at a books fair in Manchester. She was a recruiter for a religious cult, Divine Light Mission. I hadn’t looked at works on Eastern mystics, and she was able to seduce me into going to one of their meetings. Reading was actively discouraged in the sect, and for half of my time in the cult I found I was unable to concentrate on books at all. I did start reading again long before finally leaving, as their grip on me weakened severely (the sect was losing its hold on many of us at that time). The cult was running a food stall at Glastonbury CND rock festival. I happened to find a copy of a book called a Glastonbury Romance, by John Cowper Powys, a modern reworking of the Arthurian legends, and a Hellish big read – Going through its pages actually on the locations in Somerset was amazing, though it took me another three months to finish the book after I got home. It was the toughest book I ever had to struggle with. I broke free from the cult completely in 1985. Bringing the books to the present day POST-CULT READING – THE ACADEMIC YEARS In 1986, to get my mind free from the flashback trances I was facing as an involuntary legacy of the cult years, I went back into full time education. Books were a part of the study – big text books, on economics, psychology and sociology. I devoured them as voraciously as novels. I also started my own writing activity, initially for a college magazine. I would have my own poetry books in print within a few years. From College, I went to Bolton Institute of Higher Education (now Bolton University) for my Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Literature & Philosophy, which was basically an excuse to read and read and read for three years on a grant. Many of the literary titles were already familiar to me and I discovered many wonderful new authors too. At Bolton there was a second hand bookshop run by one of the tutors. This was similar to that I had enjoyed at High School, but with a difference, this one was selling second hand books. Better still, the lady running it was an ardent Christian who felt on principle that she couldn’t sell any science fiction titles that came in to the shop. Because she considered me already dammed from seeing my articles on cults and my atheism in college newspapers, she let me have all the science fiction she received for free. I was tremendously grateful for that. I grew to continue to be as happy with Batman comics as classics of world Literature. I would and still often have a copy of a book like Zola’s Germinal and the latest Mighty Thor comic side by side in my bag. Post college, I got involved with the Manchester Humanists and the British Humanist Association atheistic societies, and got to read lots of sceptical, and atheistic literature. I was co-editor of the newsletters for about ten years. To my amazement, publishers even sent me brand new books to review. I was in atheist Heaven. Local bookshops, and my college invited famous authors to give talks and signings and I got to meet many writers at such events. Later I started attending literary Science fiction conventions too, especially Britain’s annual Eastercon. I 2003 I even got to a Worldcon convention in Toronto.
My involvement in Civil War re-enactment means I read lots of history books, and I love local history studies too.
I joined a few book clubs over the years though my low income meant it was difficult to stay in them for long, and I now depend on the second hand book markets again, though sometimes I get books through E-Bay, Amazon, etc. I am also involved in a local science fiction group in Manchester so friends there often exchange and recommend titles for me. On top of that, there are several books online to be read. My only regret is that I will die before reading every book in the world, and possibly every book I own too.