“You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” ― Ray Bradbury
When I was a child, my parents used to hide my books while I slept. It wasn’t out of malice or sport, but necessity; hiding the books was the only way to avoid spending the entire day reading them to me. I didn’t learn to read until I was five years old and attending school, mostly because my mother doubted her ability to teach me, but once I had there was little that could stop me. Independently of the National Curriculum, I read Tolkien at age 10, Dickens at 12, Shakespeare at 14 and Chaucer at 16. Words had power, I knew, and they could take you places.
Today is World Book Day in Britain and Ireland; something of a contradiction, since the rest of the world celebrates it on April 23rd. We’ve been marking the day since 1995, and I remember the first event. I went as pre-transformation Cinderella in an apron made from an old blue sheet – a poor substitute for my first choice of costume, the peach from Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. It was precisely my kind of event; from the moment my parents had read me The Very Hungry Caterpillar, books had been my favourite thing in the world. I appeared to be in the minority there, though.
For a bibliophile like me, it was never easy to get along with the other kids at school. I liked reading; I wanted to read the books they disdained. They wanted to watch obnoxious TV shows and talk about ephemeral boybands. It only got worse once I reached senior school. It wasn’t cool to know things. It wasn’t cool to actually understand and enjoy the Shakespeare the others pretended to read. They didn’t want to learn; I did. I wanted to go onto college and university and do nothing except inhale and exhale words for the rest of my life; I’d wanted to do nothing but that since I was eight years old.
The society I grew up in displayed – and still displays – a rabid anti-intellectual streak that imperils the potential of every intelligent, curious child within it. It’s not cool to be intelligent; a large vocabulary is a burden, not a blessing. Grammar is something that happens to other people. We communicate in writing more than ever before. We read more than at any other point in our history. We are never far away from words on a screen, if not in print, and yet so many people still struggle to make themselves understood. Eventually I found a place where I fit in, surrounded by university lecturers and creative types in pubs filled with vibrant conversation. There was no going back.
Books are amazing. They take us to places we could never go by ourselves, places that only exist in the landscape of the mind. I’ve been to the Shire, Wonderland, Narnia, the Discworld, other planets and other times. I’ve spoken with witches in the Highlands of Scotland, watched young lovers swoon in Verona, charged across bloodied battlefields in France and accompanied pilgrims to Canterbury. I’ve shivered in the trenches of World War One and battled dragons under mountains at the edge of a different world. I’ve run through moonlit woods with werewolves and hunted in the night with countless vampires.
I’ve solved murder after murder and tracked the course of endless lives and loves. I’ve burnt books with Ray Bradbury, spiralled between blissful highs and desperate lows with Sylvia Plath, been on a boating holiday with Jerome K Jerome, and fled from unspeakable horrors with H P Lovecraft. I was in 1930s Paris with Anaïs Nin, 1900s Dublin with James Joyce, and 1970s Las Vegas with Hunter S Thompson. I’ve lived more lives than anyone has any right to, and there’s no way I’m stopping now. The feel of a book, of paper under fingers, is a trigger no less powerful than the kiss of a lover, and I am not ashamed to feed the addiction.