When I was graduating from university, some of the more socially-minded members of my course put together a yearbook. I don’t even know if I still have a copy, but I do remember one of the questions: Describe yourself in three words.
Head in book.
15 years; career, marriage and children later, it still probably best describes me. It’s what I chose as a Twitter handle, although, ironically enough, it has ceased to be quite so appropriate, since I now spend my time with my nose glued to my iPhone, angsting over the world and its troubles like some latter-day Mrs Jellyby.
Head in book.
I’d like to think that it hints of a yearning to be learned, cultured, sophisticated; forever on the quest for knowledge and self-improvement. Sometimes that is, in the least possibly pretentious of ways, the case; but the truth is that I use books like other people use chocolate or wine (and often all three). A comfort blanket, a barrier, an escape. A head in a book
is worth two in the bush is a way of avoiding the world’s gaze; of keeping reality at arm’s length.
It took me till my late twenties to realise that in times of greatest stress (exams, deadlines, pressure at work) I would pick up one of my childhood favourites (usually a school story of some description). It doesn’t take a psychologist to deduce that as well as the comfort of something familiar and undemanding, the craving was for respite from responsibility, for an ordered world with grown-ups in charge. Did I learn much from them? Well, yes and no. Other than pestering my aunt (s a teacher with a very large house) for years to start her own school, and perhaps other than drifting on to study languages at University (Chalet School, guilty as charged on both counts) I think I knew even at the time that the unreality was a big part of the attraction.
Alongside my beloved Chalet School series, I have a motley collection of 19th century North American classics. Some of them (Little Women, Anne of Green Gables etc) are famous, but others I’ve never seen elsewhere (the later novels of the “Katy” stories; Eight Cousins; Rose in Bloom) and I wonder if they were ever widely available in the UK, or if my mother was lucky to get them from her American relations in the 1940s and 50s.
I’ve generally dismissed them, possibly unfairly, as saccharine, outdated, didactic novels – good reads, interesting timepieces, but utterly irrelevant and in many ways offensive, certainly to modern feminist sensibilities. Until, last week, I found myself re-reading Rose in Bloom (LM Alcott) and being struck by – well, by how much I liked it. By how much I thought (crinolines, gloves, and marriage-and-family-as-woman’s-ultimate-destiny notwithstanding) that it offered a pretty good, if idealistic, framework for children and young people growing up. I suppose the temptation is to think that it, and its ilk, were reflections of a better, more wholesome time, when the truth is that they were always idealistic.
It’s set me to thinking back over these books, and wondering whether we read what attracts us, or whether we become what we read. Did I like these books initially because they resonated with something I’d only dimly perceived as valuable; or did I internalise their lessons like some literary time-bomb, and, dutifully, turn into a reactionary mother just in time to attempt to indoctrinate my own children?! I don’t know, and nor do I know what (if anything) if means for me as my children start reading “proper” books (do I censor? do I promote? do I hide?). Which books will they carry in their heads as adults?