A family narrative through the act of reading
I love books. I love their crisp white pages, that weirdly aromatic new-book smell and the etchings of black ink. I love their yellow sun-kissed edges, the cracks in the spine, and the well thumbed through corners.
I can’t exactly remember when I started loving these inanimate objects. Nor, can I remember when I started ascribing each one with their own narrative. But I know my family had something to do with this affection.
Possibly, it started in the form of gifts from my mum and granddad (who I fondly call Gramps). For my 9th birthday, Gramps gave me seven pastel coloured hardback editions of the Chronicles of Narnia. They came neatly stored in a blue box that was ornately adorned with famous characters
from the series.
Straight away, I launched into The Magician’s Nephew. This was my first slice of literary knowledge, and superiority radiated from me. Suddenly, I knew that this was the first book in the series and not the more commonly known, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This series made me feel almost superior and helped to inflate my childhood ego infinitely. In that I became ‘the book is much better than the film’ person.
The first few pages
At primary school, I considered myself a good reader – it could have been the badges awarded to me at the end of term. Or, it could have been the teachers running around the school haphazardly trying to find me books. But, intrinsically, I just knew I was good at it.
Sometimes, at break time, I used to sit in the quiet area of the playground on a brown wooden bench and reread my battered copy of The Story of Tracy Beaker. Another time, I spent a week hauling Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince around the playground where I would sit on a concrete step just off the football pitch with my nose buried deep into the book’s corners. Even at this young age, I set myself a challenge to read 100 pages a day, on several days I would exceed this goal partly because my dad had read the spoilers in the paper and partly because I wanted to find out the ending on JK’s terms.
I suppose, it was from that point onwards that reading became me – I read because that’s who I was – the reader.
As I merrily flipped page after page under the glow of my dimly-lit heart-shaped lamp, I realised it wasn’t about intellectual superiority in the slightest, it was about my comfort because those pages made me feel safe.
No moment may be a truer representation of this than when my dad had a stroke. At the time, I was 13 and forever wearing a bright yellow Animal top underneath a pair of dark denim dungarees. Regardless of the get-up, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had just been published and it was within this tomb that my head became a little clearer as I was whisked away on Harry’s final school year. I reread the books constantly, losing myself inside the instant protection of Hogwarts as it drowned out the harsh realities of the world.
That summer, my mum divided her time between visiting my dad at the hospital and taking us on the never-ending 35 bus loop to Birmingham Central Library.
Twelve years ago, the library wasn’t the colossal icon on Birmingham’s skyline. Instead, it was a concrete labyrinth of brutalist architecture that sat adjacent to Birmingham Museum and Art gallery just off Chamberlain Square. Inside those blocks, with mama Brotherton and my four siblings, I felt safe. For, I was surrounded by books and their stories.
When my mum was a child, she too used to go the library all the time. A hobby that was actioned by her father, Reginald Gardner, (Gramps to me) long before I was a blip on the horizon.
‘I read everything,’ she exclaimed excitedly, when I asked her about her childhood reading habits. She regaled over her love of Stephen King. ‘Thrillers, I was all about thrillers,’ and she very much still is as my iPhone notes can attest to (I have her ‘books to get list’ saved on my phone).
However, during her days as a full-time housewife, mother and general matriarch, her reading waned – in part we were to blame – as a frantic house allows no moment for recreational downtime. ‘I was just too busy,’ she sighed longingly when I probed into her reading history further. Despite her own hobby being left by the way-side, on Saturdays, my mum would always bundle myself and my siblings out the door for a short stroll down to the home of borrowed books.
Pushing a pram and watching my younger siblings toddle on, we would begin our slow walk along of one Birmingham’s canal paths and across the green playing fields to King’s Norton Library.
My local library was also this instant vessel of safety. It wasn’t very large and didn’t house that many books. Nevertheless, I would pull the bound pages from this shelf and that, knowing that at least one would spark an interest. In the unlikely chance that that did not happen, I would go armed to the oval counter with a comprehensive list and try to order in a book that had been mentioned in one of my favourite glossy magazines – probably Girl Talk.
‘Swallows and Amazons’ my mum chimed in decisively when I asked about her favourite childhood novel. And, to my great shame, it isn’t a novel I have read. Why? Because, I found my parents’ reading recommendations suffocating. I felt trapped, rather than inspired.
For that inspiration, I headed online instead. Videos on my dusty old YouTube channel, Overtheepage chronicle my early adult adventures with reading. I was a fangirl. And, for once, there seemed to be a cult following on something I knew plenty about.
The Booktube community was where I let my recommendation-barrier drop and I actually started to build friendships around reading. But, it took a while for these online encounters to manifest into in-real life experiences based on the books I loved. The important thing was that it had started.
Slowly, I began to recommend books to friends. I was in my final year of secondary school, and I would pull out copies of the Twilight saga, Noughts & Crosses, Looking for Alaska, The Princess Diaries, and The Hunger Games from my green canvas rucksack and pass them onto my friends during history.
Sharing books with my friends is a feat that I have maintained in my early twenties. For Christmas, I bought my childhood friends, Conversations with Friends. I was gifted Heartburn in the work secret Santa and have just lent Homegoing and Ponti out to my friends while borrowing Becoming and Normal People from them in return.
However, my relationship with my family and sharing books was still complex. I begrudged my younger sister for pinching House of Night and The Wolves of Mercy Falls books from my shelves. It was because reading was my safe haven. It was mine.
And then, I went to a book signing.
It was my mum who took me to my first ever book signing – of course. We had bought two tickets to hear Malorie Blackman talk about her latest novel, Boys Don’t Cry, but it was Noughts & Crosses that had peaked my interest.
At the talk, Malorie mentioned her favourite novel – The Colour Purple. After the signing, me and my mum headed home on the bus and when we arrived, she gave me a battered coffee-stained copy of The Colour Purple, and I began reading immediately.
It was when I was reading chapter four that I realised I should have been sharing these adventures all along, because here I was, inside that book. At some point, a younger me, had scrawled her name ‘HOPE’ in capital letters in pencil at the top of the chapter, an act of graffiti that my mum had never rubbed out. I finished The Colour Purple and recommended When Things Fall Apart to my mum.
I phoned my mum recently and her voice hummed over the speaker. ‘A book I would recommend to you,’ she kept repeating that line. On the other end, I could almost imagine her peering into the distance, squinting somewhat behind her bifocals as she thought.
‘Well whatever I recommend, you’ve probably already read,’ she confessed. At that, I challenged her. ‘You don’t know that,’ I teased. I knew what she would recommend – her favourite book. ‘Well, I suppose I would say To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ‘Well I’ll have to read it,’ I said.
She wasn’t disappointed when I said I hadn’t read it. For a year, it had sat at the top of a pile of precariously stacked books during my master’s year in Cardiff. But, I couldn’t bring myself to read it – the pressure to enjoy this book was intense. But, it’s not anymore and I have just dipped into its pages for the first time.
Now, I live and breathe for sharing books with my family. Every visit to Gramps’, I pinch books from his living room shelves (it’s Hemmingway at the moment). For my mum, I save the books section of a popular weekend supplement for her to read, and always arrive with a book to lend in my floral backpack. And, for my sister, the not so secret book-pincher? I gave her Everything I Know About Love recently because every young woman should read it.
So, it’s not the physical attributes that made me love books, it’s about how they connect me to my friends, to my family, to other people, places and cultures.