Books in Heads

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I’ve generally dismissed them, possibly unfairly, as saccharine, outdated, didactic novels – good reads, interesting timepieces, but utterly irrelevant and in many ways offensive, certainly to modern feminist sensibilities.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?

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4 thoughts on “Books in Heads

  1. Dear Head in Book, you write beautifully and insightfully. Am intrigued by the Katy Books – as my daughter has devoured them but not the titles you mentioned. The American ones maybe? She did say that Katy and Ann were unnaturally happy and was this normal back then? I wanted to say thank you very much for commenting on my new blog yesterday on Mumsnet and for linking it to your own. I know this is probably the rubbishest way of contacting you but am moron at technology and can’t do the twittering or the facebook business. Even my adoring children have left me as roadkill on the technology superhighway. (What the hell is a gravatar?) I’m afraid my imprinted reading was the Nacy Drew books. One particular book taught me how to know the difference between types of orange skin. For example, a hamlin is smooth. Every time I see one in the supermarket I’m back at home with my grandmother, either side of the fireplace, the logs hissing and singing in blue and purple between us. When I look at my thighs and ample bum however, am dumbstruck. Nancy and her handsome- lawyer-father didn’t quite prepare me for that. Good luck to you.

    1. Ah, Nancy Drew passed me by, so I am unable to help with the citrus conundrum…

      Thank you for your lovely comment. The later Susan Coolidge books are available on Kindle, but they are about the characters as grown-ups.

      I am not very au fait with technology either, so apologies if I inadvertently linked the blogs. I can across your post through Mumsnet on Twitter – it was beautiful, and very moving to someone whose boys are still in short trousers.

  2. I barely read anything as a child. In my late teens I realise there was a massive gap in my knowledge. I found a list of 50 books to read before you are 30 or some such rubbish (it was in Company magazine!!) and set out to read them.
    I think we are both drawn to what we like – reading for pleasure but also I’ve been shaped/influenced by books I’d been recommended or given which I might not have read otherwise – so I became what I read (slightly left wing).
    I think really children will read what they like – what resonates with them. The thing with books is they are easily dis-guarded if the story isn’t what you like!

    1. I still have great big gaps of “should-reads” (often whole authors spoiled for me by overkill or bad teaching at school). I would like to point to some great literature which has really shaped me character-wise, but I can’t.
      It has really made me wonder whether to plant books in my children’s way, though. My eldest is a natural reader; it’s too early to tell with the others (but if they take after their father, there’s some work to do!)

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