So, here we are again. That time of year when we’re supposed to make resolutions for the coming twelve-months. Newspapers and magazine shows love it—it gives them an excuse to run stories on weight-loss programs and basket-weaving classes, the kind of stuff that doesn’t require…well, anything in the way of actual reporting. I’ve always sort of wondered who these people are, the ones who make solemn promises about the year to come, but now I have joined their ranks. Not to lose weight, or improve myself in some unattainable way, but recapture something that I lost somewhere along the road from then to now.
It’s easy to forget, in the rush to absorb information by any means necessary, that first absorbing, all-encompassing obsession that books once were and the sheer delight in discovering something new.
As a child I remember trailing along behind my mother and grandmother on their weekly visits downtown for the weekly shop. It was the Liverpool of the seventies, grim and dark. Unemployment was hovering around 25% and streets that had once boasted some of the best shops in northwest England, were being abandoned by upscale boutiques and invaded by seedy electronics stores and greasy cafes. The whole place was pretty depressing and made for a tedious afternoon out for my sister and me as the grown-ups worked their way through town, starting at Lewis’s department store and ending, eventually, at the number 12 bus stop outside the British Home Stores.
But before we went to get the bus there was always a detour down Whitechapel to the Aladdin’s cave that was the Philip, Son and Nephew book shop.
Founded around 1879, Philip, Son and Nephew (you always said the full name, as if it were a single word), occupied a narrow Victorian building not far from the corner of Matthew Street and the humid basement that had been the Cavern. There were books for grown-ups on the ground floor, then non-fiction, then art books and then, at the very top of the winding spiral staircase—children’s books. My sister and I would race up the stairs and pore over the slim paperbacks (usually Puffins) searching for that next really good story. Then we’d take them home and read them in that way. That children’s way.
For me, that meant lying on my stomach in front of the gas fire in the living room and losing myself completely. I didn’t hear a thing. Every sense, every muscle, every atom of my being was engaged in reading. And not just reading—seeing, feeling, experiencing. Books were multimedia experiences playing out in my head with full-on stereo sound and 3-D vision. They were magic.
I suspect we all read like that when we’re young, but as we get older we change. We read for different reasons: for information, wisdom and, yes, entertainment. But the years bring distance, a critical faculty that makes us editorialize and question even as we absorb. It’s a great ability and one of the things that has made the well of literature such a deep and satisfying pool, but it’s not quite the same.
And then there’s time. Time becomes increasingly valuable as we portion off our days to work, family, friends life. It flies where it used to creep and there is less and less of it for a book, with the result that our reading becomes a few snatched minutes at bedtime or a guilty pleasure on a beach in summer.
We no longer lose ourselves and, you know, it really isn’t fair. Why should children get all the fun? So I’m taking it back. I’m turning off the phones, shutting down the computer, and going into the living room where I will lie in front of my fake wood burning fire, open a book and allow myself to become lost. And there’s no point speaking to me because I won’t hear you.
I’m going to be reading like a child.
Helen Stringer grew up in Liverpool, England, and currently lives in Los Angeles. Here in the U.S., she studied film, winning several student film awards, and was a Directing Fellow at the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Film and Television Studies. She is also the author of Spellbinder.