Lucy Mangan

“I am a book lover…sometimes, I hug them”

Happy World Book Day, nearly! It’s on Thursday. This year it’s joined by World Book Night – on Saturday – which is being marked by a massive, million-tome giveaway. People have been signing up for the last few months to a scheme in which volunteers each select a book from a list of 25, and give 48 copies of it to friends and colleagues. I must confess I haven’t, partly because I have only read a fraction of the 25 options and partly because I haven’t got 48 friends and colleagues. 48! If you added up all the friends and colleagues I’ve had during my entire lifetime, I don’t think we’d comfortably break double figures. And if we limit it to those to whom I feel close enough to inflict reading matter on them, I’d need to ask if we could round up from several decimal places.

Despite – or perhaps because of – this failure, I would like to state that I am a book lover. I was an avid reader from an early age, pale blue from lack of sunlight with bones as soft as toffee from an absence of exercise, and of course bespectacled (all of which make me think I’m actually doing quite well even to be approaching double figures for friendships). And I still love books. I love them in the abstract; marvelling always that within two covers another world, other characters, entire psychologies can be conjured from one imagination and conveyed to another by little black marks on a page. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed with affection for my own – especially those I read in childhood, which now occupy an indecent number of double-stacked Ikea Billy bookcases – that when no one’s looking, I hug them. Why not? The Owl Who Was Afraid Of The Dark taught me that owls swallow their food whole and the meaning of the word ‘nocturnal’. Milly-Molly-Mandy taught me the word ‘skein’ (of wool, that ‘Muvver’ was winding), as well as how to comport myself at a Thirties village fête, should the need arise. Little Women taught me that ‘peculiar’ used to mean ‘particular’, and – as I remained dry-eyed throughout the long decline of that extraordinary bore Beth – that I was born with a largely calcified heart.

I wish I could still read as I did as a child – voraciously, uncritically, gobbling books whole and moving swiftly onto the next one. But as with everything, as you get older, it gets more complicated.

I’ve read a lot, but not well. The older I get, the more people judge this

There are three things I hate about reading as an adult. The first is that the outside world encroaches. It steals your time and your head space. Gone are the days when I could immerse myself in any and every story. It’s got to be pretty gripping these days to drown out the patter of mental self-reminders to pay the bills, call the plumber, make a hair appointment, call a relative and worry about things within and outside your control.

The second is book snobbery. I’ve always read a lot, but not well. No Dickens. No Hardy – apart from Tess Of The D’Urbervilles for A-level. No Bookers or Orange Prize winners. The older I get, the more people judge me for this. A new kind of peer pressure forms, suggesting that if you’re not automatically riveted to the new Jonathan Franzen or Yann Martel, you are somehow lacking. All you are in fact lacking, of course, is the chance to look cultured on the tube with something that doesn’t suit your temperament, taste or – in the case of Franzen’s door stop – tote bag. I shall carry on reading for pleasure but I wish it wasn’t becoming such a struggle.

Thirdly, there’s the fact that a lifetime of reading leads to a perverse urge to write. To see if you can do it too – arrange those little black marks on a page and make people and plots live in the minds of others. Once the urge has you (I’ve written and been lucky enough to have had published three books), life is never the same again. The internet has made dipping a toe into publishing waters – frequently via blogging – easier than ever. More of us are, secretly or not-so-secretly, working on ‘something’ that gets saved under a misleading file name every night – the modern equivalent of stashing your manuscript in a desk drawer – before you go down to rejoin the family, cat or television. It’s like having a constant essay crisis in the back of your mind until ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ may turn out to be, is finished. Happy reading.

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Image credits: Rex Features and Colin Bell