One morning in winter. I sit at the counter, my chipped toenails dangling just above the floor, my fingers curled around a warm mug of tea with the Monday newspaper laid out before me. It is the usual gloom and doom: inflation rising, jobs diminishing, a tsunami here, an earthquake there. The magnitude of each weighs upon me, resting on my shoulders heavily, waiting to be contemplated and considered. But together, this mish-mash of stories forms the humdrum familiarity of the daily news — a little politics, a lot of suffering and very little joy. No surprises there.
As I raise the cup to my lips, allowing the liquid to spread through my limbs like a warm embrace, one headline catches my eye. “1 billion of world’s population still illiterate,” it says.
I look again, convinced I have misread. But there it is again: 1 billion. A typing error? Idle fact checking? How can it be? 1 billion people denied life’s greatest pleasure — never able to lose themselves in a book, feel the irresistible tug of a story you just can’t put down. Never able to fall asleep, mind whirling with the images of a faraway land. 1 billion people who do not know how to read? But what is a life without words? Without books? Without stories?
Stories have formed the backbone of my existence. I can remember almost exactly the day I learnt to read. I was freshly five. I had been sitting on the edge of my parents’ double bed, my legs crossed, with Nick Butterworth’s ‘Percy the Park Keeper’ cradled in the crook of my arm. The pictures were lovely — leaping squirrels, dancing mice and my favourites Owl and Badger. Yet I could not make head nor tail of the words. It felt as if I had been perched on my mother’s eiderdown for weeks, willing myself to read, wondering if I ever would. Wondering if I was destined never to read, unable to understand – to forever watch my mother retreat into her novels, an unknown country I could never penetrate.
And then! Quite suddenly, I could read! Of course. I could read. I was always going to read. Percy the Park Keeper was just the beginning. From there, I fashioned myself as an English Matilda — whiling away afternoons in the library, walking home gleefully with a precarious stack of books in my arms. These books were my keys to the world, my gateway to places I had never seen and connections to worlds I had never known.
Ladybird books and Puffin paperbacks were my childhood staples – a balanced diet of Enid Blyton, Ludwig Bemelman, Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl. I cannot imagine a childhood without my cherished friends; Sara Crewe and the BFG, whose big nose I found a little frightening, but loved like a grandfather all the same. Nor can I imagine my life today without the assorted cast of characters who keep me company on long Tube rides, bring me solace when my heart is broken (you see, it happened to them too) or take me with them on far-flung adventures to 1920s New York and Narnia.
Aged seventeen, I began my first summer job at the local library. The counter was sticky with the residue of a summer’s worth of melted popsicles, the shelves coated in a thick shroud of dust. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I watched faces light up as children discovered the boy wizard and his lightning scar, debated the true definition of a princess with the children’s book group and sat at the counter with Mark Twain open in my lap, feeling like the luckiest girl in the world.
My adult diet is much the same: one of Puffin paperbacks, folded newspapers, glossy magazines, well-thumbed romances. I cannot imagine my life without words. Who would I be?
I am lucky in myriad ways, so many ways — but especially lucky that I have the luxury of time, a brief pocket of existence as I sit on the Tube to get just-lost-enough in my book. Surrounded by the heaving bodies of other commuters, I am ferried away not to Finchley or King’s Cross or Marylebone — but to Cold War Berlin, dashing through the streets on the trail of the Stasi. Or to fin-de-siecle Vienna, where I drink coffee at Patisserie Demel with Gustav Klimt and catch a glimpse of Freud brushing past the frosted window. Today, as I sit on the train with a girl named Anne and her entire Amsterdam attic in my lap, I take a moment to look up and give thanks. I take a moment to appreciate what I so often take for granted, what 1 billion people cannot call their own.
I can read. I do read. Most of all, I love to read.
And there is so, oh-so-very-much, gratitude in that.