I hit upon one of my central reading experiences when I was writing about walking: whatever I read about I want to experience in life as well as books. In some cases, I just feel like I already know how to do something, but in others it really is the case that I read something and want to know what it felt like. I was one of those children forever feeling around in the back of wardrobes, just in case a passage to another world opened up at the touch of my fingertips.
I’ve also written before about reading as true experience: all those hours spent in imagined places were still hours spent in someplace else. Hours spent in the mind of another speaker were hours of learning another sensibility. I often had visceral responses to characters in books, and am still amazed at how authors can tilt a reader’s sympathy in unexpected ways. At times I am even more amazed when I realise that others have had profoundly different experiences of books—a prime example for me is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Dorothea Brooke is a complex character, almost sacred to me for her ability to both follow her passions, but also to own her mistakes; to me Rosamund is one of the most slappable creatures in literature. Yet friends find Dorothea’s idealism insufferable, and Rosamund’s responses, while entirely self-centred, understandable—even, for some, sympathetic.
As well as being a reader, I am a big fan of film. I often have a similar experience upon walking out of a cinema: I have felt some other life tug inside me. Perhaps what I am really saying is merely that I can be deeply impressionable. But I wouldn’t want to be less impressionable.
I had a moment of loving recognition when I first saw the British film Billy Elliot: Billy has realised that he wants to pursue ballet, but beyond the money that is meant to go to his boxing lessons and instead goes toward the ballet class for young girls who want to dress up more than they want to pursue a serious interest in dance, he doesn’t have the resources to further his love of dance—especially when he has to hide his newfound passion from his working-class family, whose ideas of gender do not extend to men in tights. Visiting a mobile library, he wants to borrow a book on dance technique—and is told he can’t. So he steals the book. Later we see him in his family’s tiny bathroom trying to master the pirouette, with the book open in front of him across the bathroom basin. In lieu of having the resources to pursue all my interests, I too have learned from books, and not always the “teach yourself” variety. I trust that I will find my lessons in unsought places as much as in the obvious resource. I follow my reading crabwise, book to book. It looks chaotic at first, and yet over time I see all those words forming webs. Oh, and I too once spent hours at home trying to master the pirouette. With much less success than Billy Elliot, but hey, it’s also handy to learn that, sometimes, No—I can’t do that. My lack of success has greatly increased my love of watching dancers—and at least it helped me avoid dizziness when I tried out web-spinning in my circus classes back in the day.
I once told one of my closest friends that I was worried that my interests had become too narrow: all I thought about was books. He kindly pointed out to me that of all the “narrow” interests to have, books seemed among the best, because they contain the world. Of course, not long after this my interests widened again, with my film obsession re-emerging, the urge to travel once more coming to the fore and, of all things, a passion for circus arts entering my life. Yes, unsurprisingly, when these things entered my life, so too did more books about them. A passion for books is, I’m afraid, a passion that always risks exponential escalation. Oh well. Jeanette Winterson once wrote that you only regret the books you do not buy. I suppose I will add to that the lessons you do not learn; and of course that the books need not be bought, so long as we have libraries, some of the most miraculous of public institutions.