Saturday, 24 October 2009

My Relationship with Books

I was not a happy reader as a child, and though my mother tried to instil in me her love of literature, it wasn’t until I was thirteen that I first read a book from cover to cover. That book was John Steinbeck’s autobiographical account of exploring the United States, Travels with Charley. From that moment, I was hooked: hooked on Steinbeck, hooked on exploring other worlds through books, and hooked on the written word.

Having grown up in the United States, I was drawn to American writers like Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner, writers who interpreted the world I saw around me. Like Steinbeck, they expressed a keen awareness of landscape and an understanding of what it is to be human. Through their books I came to realise that I was not alone in the world. Through them, I discovered that there were people out there who thought as I did and felt as I did. That is the magic of books: they have the ability to reach inside us and connect with the very essence of who we are.

In 1982, the year he won the Pulitzer Prize, I discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I spent the next few years working my way through his back catalogue, and those of other Latin American writers. After studying Creative Writing at Boise State University, I married an Englishman and moved to the UK where I worked in a number of bookshops in London and the south coast. During this time my reading expanded to include more contemporary American writers such as Toni Morrison, George Saunders, Barbara Kingsolver and Annie Proulx.

In 2003, I began studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester where I was encouraged to broaden my reading and not simply limit myself to those writers with whom I felt comfortable and whose works I knew beforehand I would enjoy. It was at Chichester that I also began reading, not just for pleasure, but critically and analytically – studying what writers do with character and plot and narrative voice. New loves have now joined old favourites and my bookshelves are overflowing with books by William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Michael Ondaatje. Yet still, it is to American writers I instinctively turn. It is their voices which call to me the loudest, to which my ears seem innately attuned.

Since taking up a teaching post at the University of Portsmouth in 2005, critical reading has itself become a pleasure and I find it impossible to read without a highlighter or pencil in my hand. My books today are full of annotations – questions and comments about the merits or demerits of the writer’s craft. Although my books are precious, I am not precious about my books and they are both well-read and well-marked.
In recent months, my book collection has swollen with new acquisitions for my PhD research, and books line my Ikea Billy bookshelves in double rows, vying for attention and the right to be placed spine out. As I explore the relationship between landscape and character, identity and belonging to place, I have made many new discoveries. Yet that very first discovery, that very first writer, remains the most important. Everything I write, everything I try to capture, comes back to him. There can be no greater teacher than John Steinbeck, and none more impossible to live up to. Yet I will continue to try.

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