The undiluted pleasure of just reading

Since becoming a teacher, my reading habits and frequency have, to an extent, unalterably changed ; yet, in other ways, those habits have accelerated and mutated.

I became a teacher for several reasons : I needed a change from a stultifying career that left me unsatisfied; I wanted to repay the inspiration I gained from my teachers at secondary school ; most of all, I desperately – perhaps too much, initially – wanted to communicate my passion for reading, in all its forms.

I remember the University of Nottingham bookshop, where I spent many an hour poring over new titles and acquiring increasing numbers of novels and poetry books. These would be lovingly added to cheap shelving units, their variegated covers and spines glowing autumnally and providing me with a wondering / wandering sense of well-being and tangible happiness. I read, voraciously, both from the Law books for my degree yet, primarily, from those groaning shelves, softly surrounding me like some syllabic fortress, a defence against the harshness of the big, bad world. I could experience that world through the opening chapters, paragraphs, verses, line breaks and articles that filled my headspace.

I left University and moved to London. In those early years, during my mid-20’s, I devoured books greedily : to the extent that I would read walking down the road (occasionally bumping into lamp posts on the way), at bus stops, on the bus in a stop start, plunging in and out of potholes fever dream, in lunch breaks. I delved deeply into American literature. I remember being sickened and appalled by ‘American Psycho’, having my bones and grammar fiercely exercised by the staccato phrasing of James Ellroy, my bones warmed and melted gently through the evocative mind maps of Douglas Coupland, then being mercilessly, relentlessly unsettled by the maverick, mathematical genius of Paul Auster’s ‘New York Trilogy’.

Fast forward a number of years and I am entering my English PGCE year, overflowing with hope, anticipation and aspirational dreams of a better future for all the students I might end up teaching. As documented elsewhere, those initial years were hard, wearing and I almost gave up : inner resilience, hardened and shaped over decades, kept my head up, my back facing forward and the books, the books, of course…

My personal reading took a tailspin into non-existence, so focused was I on becoming a ‘better’ teacher, that I had lost that golden thread along the way – it had come undone, frayed at the edges. As I gained confidence, time lent itself back to me a little more ; or, perhaps, I became a bit more organised, made more time for myself. I started buying even more books – silly numbers. That feeling of going into a bookstore and bringing out a couple of crisp, newly-acquired volumes cannot be equalled, pretty much never. Others would plop gratefully onto the Welcome mat, ready to have their packaging torn open and their insides and ‘booky smells’ briefly excavated and then, lovingly, carefully, shelved for future consumption.

I am terrible ; terrible at getting round to doing stuff ; terrible at To Do Lists. I carry thoughts around in my head like so many shopping bags, like a bunch of receipts fluttering on the edge of my consciousness, grasping at uncertainty and trying to form it into concrete ideas, lesson plans, micro poems, reviews. I love it, I lust after it, crave it dreadfully and painfully; but its make up is somehow irresponsible, irresolute, a bit cavalier. Herein lies my desire for KNOWLEDGE and reading is where I find my place in the world, where my brain expands and feels safe, a balmy summer evening, street lamp lit, a familiar place for its pulsing cells to renew, anew.

In school, I see students, every day, who don’t enjoy reading. I know there are countless reasons for this and others better qualified than I have addressed ways to counter this falling away, this literacy diminution. I tell students about my reading habits : that I have about 10 books on the go at any one time, all started, sometimes not looked at again for weeks at a time. It could be a poetry volume that I dip into for a few precious minutes ; that incredible non-fiction book called ‘The Soul of an Octopus’; a recent foray into up to the minute publishing stars such as Sally Rooney or my regular dives in politics via the weekly injection of reality from New Statesman magazine. I tell them at the start of each school year [thank you, Andy Tharby] about what I’ve read over the summer holidays. I send them reading lists, including my personal favourites. I get excited when I see the reading ages of my Year 7 and 8 classes and actively consider how I can RAISE and INCREASE those ages, so that an 11 year old can read like an 18 year old and be unafraid, determined, resolute and fitted with an imagination boundless, without borders, fizzing with possibility – all because of BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS : yes, the unrivalled power of the written word.

Recently, the starter for my Year 12 Literature class was ‘what is your favourite book that you have read so far, in your life?’ I had some interesting responses. One that stood out for me was a student that I have taught since Year 10. He is one of only two boys in the group of 9 – we need more boys on board, please!! He responded with ‘New York Trilogy’ by Paul Auster [see above…] and then gave a pithy, more mature than I could have expected reaction to it. I almost exploded with pride. Somehow, I had reached the holy grail – a student had only gone and read a book that I had recommended to the whole class before lockdown cut us short, like statuary in mid stride [thanks, Ted]. Revelatory, indeed. My efforts had not been completely in vain, after all…

If you can touch one life, inspire one student, you have done your job – isn’t that what people say? I will keep on recommending, I will keep on being excited, I will keep on trying to think of ways to convey the magic of what lies on the page, between two covers, bristling with intent, ready to leap out and grasp at nascent, bubbling and frenetic minds. After all, what else is there that brings life into being more than words, lines, sections, a multi-coloured, overspilling grammar, a gracious rainbow of creativity, ripe and ready to celebrate in each waking moment?