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20. Why Read?

If you were to ask me why I read the fundamental reason is because I was read to by my parents, day in day out, as they helicoptered banana into my greedy infant mouth, and ever since. My father gallantly ploughed through all of The Adventures of Pinocchio, a considerable task that took the best part of six months. Every evening he pleaded with me and my sister for an alternative, but we solemnly instructed him to read on. Later, when I paused to peel my own bananas, and looked around me, I saw shelf upon shelf of books, books, books.

Downstairs in the dining room, the top two shelves were end to end orange Penguin paperbacks from my parents’ student days. Invariably printed on non-acid-free paper, they haven’t aged well. The bottom rows were cookbooks suggesting delicacies from all corners of the globe, but mainly the French provinces. Upstairs in the study were exhibition catalogues, glossy and technicolour and in our bedrooms at the top of the house were the books we actually read. Little has changed. For two summers I ignored every shelf and developed more idiosyncratic pastimes, namely perving on a blameless builder constructing a wall at the end of our garden, and growing marrows, the skins of which I tattooed with messages to the poor fuckers set to receive the hulking beasts as a present. These were impossible to re-gift, or indeed to digest. The rest of the time, I dipped in and out of books, but was never a great reader.

Come secondary school, I encountered such debilitating bitchiness that it was a comfort to read about people being nice to each other, or at the very least, interesting. Enid Blyton was, by all accounts, a bitch of epic proportions, but St. Clare’s and Malory Towers were happier parallels of my own boarding life. I would have trusted the schoolgirl heroine, Darrell Rivers, with my life, at a stage when I didn’t trust those around me not to ruin it. In this fictional utopia, good friendships seemed possible. ‘More’ magazine offered sage advice on the ins and outs, so to speak, of boys. As did The Wife of Bath, up to a point, but I couldn’t pull off her bluster in a training bra and braces. From the pages of books I learnt to empathise; to understand that someone might be upset, and why. From books I gathered up all the information I needed to feel clever, and to prove it. And so to university, where I swapped the Roman alphabet for the hiragana and kanji of Japan, and later swapped right back.

Now my friends are all much cleverer than me, and read voraciously. I read to keep up as much as for pleasure. We’re all doing things that we might have imagined, had we taken the time to think about it, but because these jobs are smaller than our dreams, we trawl through every written word in a bid to project ourselves into another world. If we are to do more than simply exist in our busy lives, we need books to help us.

Augusta Pownall

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  1. 21. Why Read? | Don't read too fast.

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