On a bookshelf, at the bottom of one of my bookcases, I have a three volume collection called ‘Football Handbook’. It’s not a particularly attractive set: green laminate plastic with ‘Football Handbook’ garishly splashed down the spines – but I love it and I love that I’ve kept it for almost forty years. It became the result of almost two years of collecting; one of those ‘Marshall Cavendish builds up to a comprehensive guide’ types which were so prevalent when I was younger. Perhaps they still are, I’m not sure. It meant a commitment and dedication that both teenage distraction and limited pocket money would fight against, day and night. I got there in the end though. Saturday morning deliveries, waited for by the door, became a family irritant. For me, a tradition.
I very rarely even open these three books though. When I do they, of course, seem out of date and weary; poorly written prose about footballing issues which have long since drifted out of date. However, they represent something far more important to me: the young reader just beginning his life in books.
Collecting things seems to be a very human characteristic. Unique and personal, regardless of what that collection may consist, it represents part of our histories. And whether you’ve dumped any sight or sound of that collection – I really wish I hadn’t thrown out the first one hundred editions of ‘Roy of the Rovers’, I really do – it stays with us and becomes part of who we are.
Those three green volumes were the start of a lifetime’s book collection which still grows and adapts to this day. Like a permanent marker in an ever changing landscape, the green spines are always there. Building our book collection coincides with building our reading history. They take a lifetime to construct; they may constantly change but our favourites remain because they form part of our lives and loves, representing times in our lives which we want to keep alive. As Susan Hill writes:
‘…if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books, as me…I am my literary DNA.’
There is something remarkably personal about bookshelves. They have taken a lifetime to construct; they are unquestioningly individual. Checking out the shelves of houses you visit tell you more about a person than anything else. That they would have their books out and on display instead of hidden away tells you even more: that books are not an optional extra but part of the air we breath. Each book has a story to tell, not about the writer but about the reader.
That’s why we readers seek out bookshops and libraries no matter where we are in the world. We are at home there.
‘Libraries generate longing. It collects in the shelves and rustles under the desks and zaps people like static electricity.’ Ian Frazier
My bookcases tell as much about my past as most photographs. How can we convince young people that this may be the result of a reading life rather than a short term activity that school insists that they do? They may well live in houses with books but more often than not they belong to family members: their own shelves filled with childish annuals which embarrass them. How do we help them to develop into the lifelong readers we hope they become? Perhaps allowing them to subscribe to a magazine of their choice, just as I did all those years ago – regardless of how shallow and mundane we might find it – could help. There are some great titles out there on a huge range of subjects, far more than from which I had to choose. Ensure that it is delivered to them personally. Maybe allow them to develop that anticipation which I had on a Saturday morning, creating a collection that looks good in a pile in their room and, who knows, allows them to read things for themselves. It might work.
If we’re serious about developing a generation of readers we surely need to think beyond the classroom. I know my reading certainly didn’t stem exclusively from school and my English class. Perhaps by taking them seriously as readers we could encourage them to build up their reading experiences while sharing ours. They could well build into a comprehensive guide to the readers of the future. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing.