Before I ever wrote, I read. I read voraciously. One of my favourite things as a child was to be allowed to go to bed early and read by lamplight. I have very little in common with my childhood self, but this remains- lamplight, a book, the rain outside and a duvet, an impenetrable dream world of comfort and adventure and exploration. When I read I often lose the ability to hear. People may speak to me and I will not notice. I am wholly absorbed.
Books were and still are an escape hatch. They are also a lens. While reading a book I begin to think in the tone and style of the author. My perception will alter- even through the lens of fiction to explore the ideas woven into the narrative. Certain books stay with me, I will at seemingly random moments return again and again to the world I have absorbed, kaleidoscoping my own reality to resemble a position or viewpoint- the ideas of a character, the arguments of a researcher, the instructions of a teacher.
I still often read before I write. I cycle through phases of reading everything I can find by a particular author or many of the notable titles in a genre or varying perspectives on a topic of interest- barely looking up, carrying books around with me to continue in the minutes of inactivity while cooking or while waiting for a bus. And then the spell will break and I will feel driven to draw or write or maybe less artistic forms of expression- socialising or altering my appearance. Books call me, and require a response.
Treasured possessions, despite the convenience of my e-reader I hoard books, too many to really fit where ever I have lived- collections, signed copies, special editions, second hand copies barely holding together. Books gather anywhere I settle. I don’t remember buying so many but they are everywhere, my bookshelf is carrying twice the weight of books it was designed for, piles stacked anywhere there is shelf space, boxes under my bed, on top of wardrobe. They just seem to turn up. I have lived in eleven or twelve homes in London, and each time I have moved I have had to painfully part with several large boxes of books, keeping only the ones I ‘need’, my collection having gotten out of control. Buying an e-reader has barely helped- I don’t remember buying so many books, I must have owned thousands- where do they all come from?
Some book I have owned many copies of, certain titles being prone to falling to pieces due to being read again and again, carried around in bags, glue steamed off by long baths. It was suggested to me as a child I keep a list of books I have read- in part I wish I had although I am sure the notebooks listing the titles would have become a burden by now, competing with space in the tiny flats I can afford to rent with the books I want to own. When I daydream about the house I wish I owned, the location and look of bookshelves feature heavily in the images.
Books obsess me, shape me, teach me and keep me company. Books have substituted for friends, family, lovers, teachers. I think in some ways I speak to books as much as they speak to me, why else the compulsive outpouring of expression following periods of deep absorption? If I read books, they read me back, burrowing into my psyche and subtly shifting the landscape, in small ways, in big ways. I have invented books in my dreams, as if the night has invaded on time I could be spending with them or around them. I got many As in school for stories recycled from literary dreams.
The computer games are generally considered to be interactive media- and I enjoy them, but books are as interactive as the most intricate narrative based game. Not just the chose your own adventure fighting fantasy books I sat with for hours with a score sheet and pencil, but standard texts- novels, poetry collections, educational textbooks. The call and refrain rhythm is familiar but always new, even if I have read a title 20 times. The ink of printed text is living blood to me, a transfusion of thought. My relationship with books is intimate, sometimes private. Some books I rarely talk about. Some books I can pull apart at length with someone who has read the same title, however I rarely write directly about books. Perhaps it feels a little too much like kiss and tell. The review often betrays the inner world of the reviewer as much as it explains the book itself.
So then, reading is an essential part of writing for me. It is what the aisle or palette is to the painter. I draw my colours from the words of others, my inner library is the stabilising frame required to make marks on paper. For me, to read and to write are not separate activities, simple different steps in the process. Priming the canvass, then applying the paint. What the book reads, is the beginning of a new story.
Header Art By Irene, Author of Into The Night , An account of Art, Feminism and Late-night Insights.