Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Uniquely Portable Magic

I go back to the reading room, where I sink down into the sofa and into the world of the Arabian nights. Slowly, like a movie fadeout, the real world evaporates and I’m alone, inside the world of the story. My favourite feeling in the world”.    Haruki Murakami ('Kafka on the Shore')

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin.

For many, ‘books’ including the act of reading, becomes a lifelong passion (some may say obsession). From those bibliophiles who like to collect rare books, and leather bound 1st editions, to those so in love with reading, it consumes them. So what exactly is it which enables our fluency of the written word to influence our minds, bodies and spirits to the core, like a drug, which is hard to kick, resulting in it being recognised as still one of the top three most common hobbies of all time?

To look at offering some explanation to this phenomenon (from my own perspective of course), I thought I would take a brief retrospective review of some specific memories of my relationship with books and reading, identifying just a handful of the many texts I have had the pleasure to pick up and consume. My hope is for you to join me on this journey, and as you read the blog, start reminiscing on your particular much loved books, and why that might be the case. You can then building your own timeline in turn. Who knows? We will see at the end.

So… I suppose the most obvious place to commence is with my earliest memory of having a favourite book. Without being influenced by the stories of others (my parents and family) when I was growing up, my first true memory is ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ by Roald Dahl. I must have read this book over and over many times so much so its dog eared appearance and loose leaf pages became covered in ‘sticky back plastic’ to keep it together. Yep I used to watch Blue Peter too at the time. Although the fine detail has since faded into the background, I still remember many aspects of the story in detail. The most vivid memory of this book is of a short limerick which children sang about the three villains in the story, and part-time farmers by all accounts. It went:

“Boggis, Bunce and Bean,

One fat, one short and one lean!
The horrible crooks,
So different in looks,
Are nonetheless equally mean."      Roald Dahl ('Fantastic Mr Fox').

 Without ending up doing a 500 word synoptic book review like we did at school, I do like to think it was this particular verse which peeked my interest in humour and all things poetry. Whilst subconsciously raising my awareness of the importance of animal welfare. Apart from its potential of enlightening me to the concept of ‘anthropomorphism’ where we attribute human traits, emotions or intentions to non-human entities, such as animals. This also probably explains why I insist on making up humorous stories about how my pets feel, think and act in certain ways. Well I think they are funny anyhow…

Some other memorable books which I hold dear from my childhood, include ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding, ‘Z for Zachariah’ by Robert C. O'Brien and ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury. All three were key text for my English literature studies, and whilst having a storyline which drew me into the story (just like Haruki Murakami explained in the opening paragraph), they all offered this dystopian view of life, which had deeper meaning in my understanding of the world around me. As a result, these few texts among others around this time have left a lasting impression over the last 40 years or so.

Considering these experiences in my formative years, one thing became evident. For me, books have the influential power to help shape our personal values, attitudes and beliefs, which are the main building blocks to our personality. Consequently, this is one of the main reasons why I think books remain as popular with people throughout their lives. Their unique properties of influencing our minds.

OK; so what else is it about books which keep us amused? I’m sure we have all experienced first-hand, or ended up discussing on numerous occasions how books can stimulate our sensory experiences of reading outside of the more binary concept of looking at words. For instance the look and feel of books is something we seem to get pleasure out of. The aesthetic beauty of a book jacket, can help to sell a story. With some even going further to offer a tactile, almost three dimensional picture into the bargain. And although we are told we should ‘never judge a book by its cover’, I must admit it is a draw for me, just like the colourful spring flowers are to bees.

One particular series I fondly remember, which are the first four books in the works of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams, offered to me this particular appeal. Each book in itself was interesting in the sense that it was split into four quarters with each part having a portion of a picture showing. A glimpse of what became several larger complete pictures once you put them together (a bit like a book jigsaw puzzle). The four pictures were all related to the story, for instance, a babel fish, a towel, a self-portrait of the author, and a spaceship ‘The Heart of Gold’ shaped like a trainer. For years I possessed three out of the four books, and even though they changed the cover pictures over time, I still continued to trawl charity shops and car boots looking for the illusive edition. It took until I stopped looking to actually find one, which I thought was ironic, and somewhat akin to Douglas Adams sense of humour. So in retrospect rather apt too.

Although, this isn’t the only sensory stimulus books offer us. How about its olfactory influences. The smell of both new and old books is something special. Walking into second hand bookshops has its own particular aromatic enticements beyond that of water damaged stock picked up for a song. This also links to another favourite joke of mine. Where Ozzie, (our 5 year old dog) insists on sniffing books which come into the house. This ‘I kid’, is his way of reading, and as such he can tell which books he will need to read next, compared with those he has already read.

There is also something squeaky clean about new books which when opened has an inimitable sound for our auditory receptors. The turning of a crisp new page or ruffling of several pages in rapid sequence over your thumb whilst you search for your place in the book. This was something rather special, and sadly sorely missing when you pick up a Kindle (other electronic reading devices are also available). So just like vinyl records were thought to be on their way out, replaced by the MP3, books too, were struggling, but have now seen a resurgence, taking them off the endangered list, hopefully for many future generations to come. This current demand for all things ‘retro’ has a lot to answer for in my eyes, but it’s always good to think that some things are also a benefit for us as well.

This is best illustrated for me several years ago now, when Stephen King decided to release his most recent book, 'The Green Mile', in a series of 6 novelettes released one every month. Each book was purchased on its first day of sale, with baited breath as to what was happening next, based on the previous cliff hanger. Now this was a time where I was very much strapped for cash, and as such having a new book was seen as a luxury. So buying these books, and reading them almost whilst the ink was still drying, was a guilty pleasure.
Books therefore offer us a deeper level of physical contact with our bodies, and improving the connections with our knowledge acquisition. As Douglas Adams quite rightly put it;
“I’d take the awe of understanding,
over the awe of ignorance any day”.
Or as Yoda affirms;

“In a dark place we find ourselves,
and a little more knowledge lights our way”.

The final element of this trilogy of reasons why book are so important, involves the more complex affinity of engaging us at a spiritual level. Book offer us a way of engaging with our emotional brain, beyond the more simplistic binary biographical data transmission and storage. Many times I have become so engrossed in particular stories which offered both an escapism from reality, and emotional connection to its characters which by the end of the story I feel drained of energy, and feeling somewhat at a loss, like I’m missing a close friend (although back in reality they were never there to begin with).

Some books I still hold true to this depiction include the ‘Lord of the Rings’ by J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ by C.S. Lewis and my favourite book of all time (so far that is), which is ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. For me this is just as much an emotional roller-coaster the first time I read it, to the most recent. This multigenerational story of Jose Arcadio Boendia and his extended family offers such a variety of emotions, suspense to humour, love to melancholy, Life and Death in equal measure, and all in just over 400 pages.

The rather famous and sometimes over quoted musings of Maya Angelou who said:

“People will forget what you said, People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
This could just as well be associated with books, alongside her original intentions.
Here in these few passages I have offered my thoughts as to why ‘books’ are so important to us from a level of Mind, Body and Spirit, or a Bio-psycho-social perspective if you like. So just before I end this celebration of all things ‘books’, and offer you a final poem (in the form of a Haiku). There are a few more quotes for you to consider which I felt sum up for me there essence and meaning.

Ernest Hemingway’s notion that:  "There is no friend as loyal as a book."
“A true friend is the one who holds your hand and touches your heart." Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

And Stephen King who observed: “Books are a uniquely portable magic”…

Haiku on the theme of Books
Cover to cover,
delights await you inside,
immerse your mind’s eye.         

Thank you for taking the journey with me and happy reading, SMG.


Adele said...

A wonderfully constructed blog Steve and a jolly good read. Welcome.

Steve Rowland said...

This was a great debut blog. It's always fascinating to read other people's literary journeys and yours was most entertaining. Thank you.