The landscape does not exist, but I can see it. A narrow concrete river channel, empty and dry with rough grey walls at 45°, snakes toward a disappearing point on the near horizon. On either side, riverbanks slope up towards a crooked line of mismatched fences, over which peek red rooftops and the green heads of backyard fruit trees. Where the channel disappears in the distance, there is a hint of city towers, though these I see less clearly. It is a suburban landscape but not unappealing in my mind. Something about the scene stirs in me a strange nostalgia—a desire to go there. The channel runs behind the houses through a neighbourhood. The grass is long, unkempt; it is an edgeland, and there is a sense of hidden places to explore and discarded things to find.
As I said, this landscape does not exist, and yet, I did not invent it. It is a memory from a book I read as a child, though which book or what characters walked there and where they were going or why, I’ve long forgotten. The image has lived with me for a long time, bright and clear. I have never been there, but I long to return.
C. S. Lewis once described his childhood in a way I recognise. “I am a product,” he wrote, “of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silence, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.” I don’t mean to suggest that, like Lewis, I grew up mostly alone in a large Edwardian house with many rooms (though the idea is not unappealing). It is a particular atmosphere or feeling associated with childhood that I recognise in Lewis’s words. I, too, am a product of long, empty afternoons spent reading.
Some of the titles of the books I read as a child I’ve since forgotten. The stories live with me now only as half-remembered landscapes or as faint memories stirred up in me from time to time by certain sounds (laughter in a far room) or certain qualities of light (afternoon sun through high windows)—the vague ghosts of forgotten faces and names I once loved but no longer remember.
But some books I recall more clearly—where I was and what I felt when I read them. I remember when I was nine years old, my teacher, Mrs Brown, reading to the class Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. I never wanted it to end, though it made me so sad. I remember desiring with great desire the butter-pies in Diana Wynne Jones’s Tale of Time City. A butter-pie is a creamy, toffee-centred, cold dessert from the 42nd century and remains for me one of literature’s great culinary inventions. I remember my growing wonder as the wooded ruin explored by the Pevensie children in Prince Caspian turned out to be the castle of Cair Paravel where they once reigned as kings and queens of Narnia. I remember the great empty copper corridors and rooms in Paul Biegel’s The King of the Copper Mountains and my worry that the Wonder Doctor would never find the Golden Speedwell to heal the old king’s failing heart. I remember my fierce jealously at my neighbour’s copy of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. The text was green and red depending on which world the events were taking place in, and the first page of each chapter had a large, illustrated character, like the art in a holy book, marvellous and strange.
I once took a day off school, lying to my mother that I was sick, so I could read for eight hours straight the last book in Terry Brooks’s The Heritage of Shannara series. It had finally come available from the local library after long months of waiting. I sat in a chair in the garden, my knees wrapped in a blanket like an old man (maybe it was spring or autumn, or perhaps mum really was worried about my health). The sun traced a long arc on the turning pages. I finished the book just as I was called in for dinner.
Author Marilyn Robinson titled a book of her essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. As an explanatory note for one’s life, this makes sense to me. Like Robinson, like Lewis, I feel myself a product of my childhood reading. Much was given to me in those solitary hours that I have been living out of one way or another all my life: the desires and yearnings that go deepest in me—where I find rest and joy.
When I was a child, I read books. And I’ve kept reading them.
A pile of books sits on my bedside table. I like to have five or six on the go at any one time, different genres and styles to fit different moods and moments. An old paperback edition of C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra sits on top of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders peeks out from underneath Alan Jacobs’s The Narnian. A compact copy of Ted Hughes’s Season Songs marks a page in Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.
Every evening, I read in bed before sleep. Often enough, I’ve also spent the few hours before bed reading, on the couch in the lounge under lamplight after the kids are down. A holiday is just an excuse to read more, only in a different location. Even on honeymoon, my wife (also a great reader) and I spent mornings browsing second-hand bookstores and afternoons sitting in an old pub reading our new books and—occasionally (but not too often)—talking about them.
There are books I love so much that I have purchased them twice, just to have the feeling of buying them all over again.
I love to be surrounded by books. The personal library of Italian novelist and academic polymath Umberto Eco fills me with jealousy. It was said to hold over 30,000 volumes. On YouTube there is footage of Eco, wool-vested and balding, walking through his house to retrieve a book. He ambles down long corridors lined with white, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, through great rooms with book shelves on every wall and more criss-crossing the centre of the room, dissecting it like septa in a nautilus shell. For over a minute, Eco walks without pausing before reaching the book. It is a labyrinthine library, like the library in Eco’s own novel, The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in a fourteenth century Benedictine monastery. The monastic librarian in that book is named Jorge of Burgos, presumably a nod to Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian novelist and one-time librarian who famously wrote a short story (“The Library of Babel”) about an infinite library the size of the whole universe. My personal library goals are more modest: I desire one wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with a narrow wooden ladder to reach the top shelf.