When I was small, I was bad at reading

I can still remember the teachers not being interested in my contribution. I sat at the front waiting for another chapter of Nurse Matilda and clapped my hands hopefully, and the teacher said she had a headache.

I was criticised by the outer family for always looking at a book, much like they say of young people now: always on their phones. I was always on my book. Little Women when I should have been outside. Harriet The Spy when I should have been asleep. Heidi when I should have been at the table.

Lucky I had reading parents: I was surrounded by stuff to read.  But not reading grandparents: I should have been exercising. Out in the sun. Making conversation. Attending. Changing my frock. That orange frocking frock with frocking white daisies on the front. I read The Magic Faraway Tree,  I stood in the backyard and looked at the fig tree for a long time. Too long. My Nanna, who only read the bible, boxed my ears for not being organized. My Grandfather gave me the hose as compensation. Do a bit of watering, he advised me sadly.

When my Nanna died, they found Mills and Boon novels amongst her private things, one of them tucked paperbacky cosy inside her old leather bible. So.

At school I read too fast and skipped bits. Whole pages even. It was because I was trying to get at the salt. Some books took too long.

I could not read the words “old” or “egg” for a long time. Those words, “old” and “egg”, would not form sounds for me.

In high school, I didn’t do much better.  I loved the books but read too fast. Or too slowly and couldn’t write essays very well. Didn’t get the questions.

I loved Sons and Lovers because the mother boiled potatoes in a saucepan. She peeled the potatoes angrily. The boy was anxious to get to the fair. He took his pudding in his hand. This scene is precisely why Sons and Lovers is a Great Book. And – the children in the book playing games and skipping furiously pressed into the dusk and the dirt in the back lane at the back of their houses. But I wasn’t there.

But you can’t write about that, so in year 10, I failed the essay. Then I read nearly everything in the high school library. I read  H E Bates who wrote about hot in The Purple Plain: what it’s like to be in a tent in the heat, and I never forgot about the heat in that tent, but you can’t write about that.

I read Rebecca, which was too luscious to write about, and The L Shaped Room, where a woman walked along in the rain whipping the trees with a sodden gum branch in her hand. And East of Eden, which I tried to read out loud to my mum, the whole book, while she chopped vegetables with an exhausted knife.

Then The Dark Is Rising books which probed terrors not worth disturbing again. A steady line of books form the Adelaide Children’s Library. Then The Wizard of Earthsea, and a time of no reading because I had to draw up my own map of Earthsea.

“The yellow smoke hissed from the dragon’s nostrils: that was his laughter.”

 I believed for a long time (without realizing it) that there was a right way to read; that reading was a country with policies. Then I saw that it wasn’t.

A million more books came at me fast from every direction and never letting up. So I opened a bookshop. It seemed the only way to survive the onslaught.

When D. H. Lawrence fell

I had to read Sons and Lovers in high school, but I don’t know why.

It didn’t matter. I read it anyway. There were three things that were important about this book (to me). The first was when the mother peeled potatoes before putting them into a saucepan of hot water. The second was when she thrust the child’s pudding at him. The third was the scene with the children playing outside the row of miner’s cottages at the end of the evening. These things broke upon me in searing images: clean hot water in a metal saucepan. A tired mother. A potato peeler. Children in skipping games at dusk in the dirt before being called home. Not just skipping. These were strong, muscular, dangerous skipping games where a child’s position in society was challenged and set. I got that.

But I didn’t know it was England. I thought the author’s first name was Deeaitch. I didn’t know it was about ‘young men’. I didn’t know about coal mining, except that it made families tired. I couldn’t, in year ten, articulate seduction or grief or death. But I read it, and it gained a hold. It was about earth, potatoes, your mum, your sulking brother, poor people’s skipping ropes. And anger. I got that, too.

I read it decades later; they (whoever they are) were right – it is a masterpiece, and it is about life, potatoes, and anger. So, I was right – even though I did not shine in the essay. But the reason I didn’t shine in the essay is because I was up all night reading The L Shaped Room, the next book on the list that I didn’t understand, and was so so so good.

Anyway, the reason that D. H. Lawrence fell is because my grandsons knocked them all off the shelf, my entire collection in cool olive green leather, all ten of them, onto the floor – and there they lay amongst the strong skipping feet, the saucepans, the anger, the mother that died, and her son, D. H. Lawrence.