Opinion Story

I read like a squirrel and I’m not sorry

I was reading the end of a novel a few weeks ago. As a reward for finishing the first draft of my own book, I’d thrown myself into this new world and my heart was crashing and swelling all at once. The book’s called A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

My daughter went to go to nursery, but then didn’t at the last minute. So she was at home, doing some counting exercises in a little workbook and I was sitting near her, reading, pretending to supervise, but really reading. Back into the wave machine.

The last few pages – Yes, draw eight more dogs and then count them all and write the number.

Eyes blurring – Yes, draw seven ladybirds and then count them all and write the number.

The not wanting to turn the page, wanting a magical new chapter to appear, not to have to let go yet.

– Mum, what is a ladybird, big with no antennae? I break out of my trance and think.

‘A tortoise?’

Yes, she says, grinning madly, ‘I just made that up.’

I wonder for a second how it’s possible that I could be balancing between these two worlds simultaneously, hers and that of this massive, immersive book and then I smile through the silent tears and realise that this is the whole point. That’s what she does when she breaks into a favourite line from Mr Gum over her long-cold, half-chewed omelette.

That’s what we all do: we eat books like squirrels in a forest, saving up all the nuts for times of Great Need.

I finished the book and didn’t know what to do with myself for days. I wanted to write about it, talk about it. A twitter friend suggested a day of hugging. I thought that was a good idea.

Before I read A Little Life, I read All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. It had the same effect. I wanted to write a review, to be all lyrical and clever, but instead I went to bed and stared into the back of my eyelids and let the little bits I’d scavenged from the text lodge themselves somewhere in my heart. Left a bit, back a bit, up a bit. There. Another book-hazelnut.

I’d make a really shit book reviewer. I’d say ‘oh, that was so, so amazing. Amazingly amazing and amazing, and it just made me, um, wow. Yes.’

But I don’t care because I don’t want to be a book reviewer.

I went to a talk in Sofia last week by the novelist Claire Messud (then promptly read her latest, The Woman Upstairs. It was amazing and amazing and amazing.) She said quite a lot of clever things, which I followed brilliantly at the time. She told us about her grandmother, Margery Riches, which was really doing magic, because she made this person appear, just like that, right in front of us, with smells and sounds and the sensation of a dress rubbing against a slip in a room in a house in a life that we’d never, ever see.

And while people like Thomas Bernhard, she said, I thought, did things like write mad, brilliant monologues on art and philosophy and the lamentation of reducing lifetimes of this stuff to ‘single sentences; philosophical hues,’ she did something even more magic and said that actually single sentences can be transformative. In themselves.

‘We are as much the sum of our lived literary experiences as of our literally lived experiences.’
She said, I thought.

And she’s right. These are the fragments we shore against our ruins. These are the nuts we stuff in the tree. These are the words we squirrel away for when we might need them, even if we can never quite remember how they went.

That’s why we write. Read. Rewrite. Reread. Look up on Google what that thing we once read was.

And if you are trying to write or trying to read, you should never give up on that or make it harder for people to get hold of the books they need, especially children, because they need them sometimes as if their lives depended on it.

You should never give up writing them or the reading of them because you never know when and where those magical sentences might occur.

She said. What do you think?

By Jo

Writer, artist, builder

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