Think back to a favourite book from your childhood. Can you still recall the cover, or some of the text? Do you have fond memories of being read to perhaps at bedtime? Now, these days I spend a lot of time reading books on my netbook or my Kindle. I use computers from morning till midnight; I have co-written and marketed computer software with my spouse. No Luddite here. The thoughts and emotions conjured up by “He loved Big Brother”, “The rest is silence” or “The game is afoot” are as powerful on an eReader screen as they are on the printed page. Yet there are times when it is important for me to have an actual physical book in my grubby little hands because, you see, I grew up in a house without books. When I finally did get a book of my own, that book saved my life and sent me into a career that, I hope with humility, made a difference in the reading lives of a great many kids also living without books.
I grew up in an upper middle class household. My mother was in a management position in the medical profession, and my father was a successful businessman and a professional musician who toured with his own bands and could play several musical instruments effortlessly. But my parents didn’t read books. My parents didn’t particularly like books. They didn’t have time to read books anyway, as they were struggling with some pretty major problems of their own. So it didn’t make sense to them to buy books for their children. I didn’t run into many books at school either because I spent most of grades one, two and three in hospital or on my own sick at home, and so I basically taught myself how to read. Oh, there were a few Readers Digest Condensed Books, a dusty old dictionary that sat on a shelf I couldn’t reach, and some of my mother’s medical textbooks full of long words and gross pictures. That was about it.
But then when I was around eight a neighbour was about to throw out a battered old orange-coloured book that had some rather startling illustrations. I asked if I could have the book and he gave it to me and I took it home to examine when no one was looking. I read and re-read that book many times. I marveled at the finely-wrought illustrations. I laughed at the jokes. I identified with the protagonist because she was about my age, and, like me, she found herself in a rather sinister world. The book actually contained two stories with the same main character, and are often seen as light-hearted children’s classics; they are in fact infused with death humour, terrifying possibilities and concepts designed to horrify. Yet the main character displays great common sense and curiosity, and she is determined to negotiate this nightmare with her identity intact. If she could deal with her bizarre surroundings then so could I.
I kept that dilapidated old orange volume in my room, under my bed, under my pillow, and sometimes open beside me late at night as I struggled to read my way through it while everyone else was asleep. I had no stuffed animals when I was a child so I hung on to that book instead when I went to sleep. Its physical presence was not only a comfort: it was an incentive to learn how to read. I hugged it, I thought about it, I loved it. Today a child in a circumstance like that might cling to an eReader in the same way - the principle is the same. The book, of course, was an edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass.
As I grew older I dove into works by Orwell, Austen, Tolkien, Le Carré, L.M.Montgomery, Conan Doyle, Wells, Wyndham, Twain and many others. I completed university degrees in four different areas and so, thanks to Alice, I managed to overcome the lack of books in my childhood thank you very much. I became a Special Education teacher who got to teach and guide children from homes worse than mine. Being able to get them enthusiastic about reading was incredibly gratifying. I kept a large hand-coloured reproduction of Tenniel’s monstrous Jabberwock from Through the Looking Glass on my classroom door which led many of my students to pick up the book it was from. Many then moved on to the comfort and wonder of stories about Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter and dozens of others. I later taught students identified as gifted and they were able to get something out of the Alice books, and other books, as well.
My mother threw out my original copy of the Alice books. Both of my parents suffered from alcoholism; they were far too self-involved to be aware of what was important in the lives of their two children. But I have a large Lewis Carroll collection now. I have over a hundred editions of those original two works, along with most everything else Lewis Carroll wrote including a real page-turner entitled ‘An Elementary Treatise on Determinants With Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraical Geometry (Carroll was also a Mathematics lecturer at Oxford). The author of the Alice books was a perfectionist who took great pains in marrying the text of his work with the illustrations. He cared about the font and the white spaces. He also personally sent hundreds of free copies of the two Alice books to children’s hospitals. That was important to me; I spent a lot of time in hospitals as a kid.
All I know is that when I am feeling vulnerable it gives me great pleasure to take down a copy of the Alice books and read about how Alice kept her sanity in an insane world. I sometimes wonder what books were also life-saving for other people.
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