The drive way is a 30 metre gentle incline that curves to the left. At the top, was the single-car garage, which, within a couple of months of moving into the house, he had converted into a study, with a carport just in front of it. On both sides of the length of the former garage, he put in shelves from ground to just below the ceiling with a couple of shelves on the wall office the entrance, beneath a small window that was put in to brighten the study. The shelves weren’t able to hold all the books he owned but it made a dent.
This was the home we moved into when I was 11 years old. I grew up in a house with books, which is convenient since I have always enjoyed reading. My father, the academic-turned-entrepreneur, had a lot of books and, when he converted our garage into his study, he lined the walls with books on various topics.
There were textbooks on everything from economics, political science and sociology to law. There were novels, biographies, a collection of the African Writers Series (published by Heinemann from 1962 and including the works of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Alex La Guma, Sembene Ousmane, Can Themba, Bessie Head, Kofi Awoonor and Ayi Kwei Armah, amongst others), and books from leading American writers such as James Baldwin, Alex Haley and Richard Wright. There were also books issued by Readers Digest where I regularly got collections of fairy tales and other children’s stories.
A book burrows into your life in a very profound way because the experience of reading is not passive – Erica Jong
I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley around then and it has had a lasting impact on my life. Through school, I devoured the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, Louis L’Amour’s writing (the librarian used to keep the new books aside for me when the minute they were registered), Agatha Christie, George Orwell, Henry Miller, Wilbur Smith, Eric van Lustbader and even my older sister’s Jilly Cooper books, which, for that time, were the ultimate erotic books for a teenage boy in the 1980s. It took me multiple attempts over a five-year period to finish Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I fared a little better with Anna Karenina. I read any and everything, although I used to get lectured for not reading enough non-fiction books and spending my time consuming frivolous writing. One of my all time favourite books is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 but I also had a killer comic book collection for some years, with a focus on UK comics like Beano, Dennis The Menace, Roy of the Rovers, Hotshot Hamish and, later, 2000 A.D.
To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all of the miseries of life – W. Somerset Maugham
This love for reading extended into my 20s. I would get into a particular author and work my way through their bibliography. Anne Rice continues to be one of my favourite writers but I’ve also been through Dan Brown, Robert Jordan, Neil Gaiman and the like.
Losing My Way
And then one day, I stopped reading. I would pick up the occasional book but nothing like I did up till that point. I never had time. Life’s day-to-day ebbs and flows demanded my full attention or rather that’s what I thought. But, I am one of those who believe that, as a writer, it is important to be a good reader. Evan Maloney wrote a great piece on this in The Guardian some years back titled The Best Advice For Writers? Read.
I have a decent number of books in my home and not enough shelf space. I have books on the floor in my home office, in the drawers of my bedside table and in a box or two in my garage, but I wasn’t reading them. Let’s be honest, books take up space. And, when I travelled, I would take at least 3 books with me to ensure I had something for every mood. I once spent 12 days in Taiwan lugging a backpack with 5 books I never cracked open the whole trip and came back with aching shoulders.
So, in 2010, I made a decision that has changed the way I consume books – I bought myself a Kindle for Christmas. I love the feel and smell of a book as much as the next person but it wasn’t enough to get me back into the rhythm of reading. I also instituted a new rule. Every night (well, most), the last thing I do before laying my head on my pillow is to read for a minimum of 10 minutes. Often I will get up to 30 minutes in but even if I end up reading 5 pages, it’s a successful night.
In this way, I have been able to up the books I read and I am the better for it. Plus, because I buy books digitally, I am finding that I am reading more books across multiple genres and subjects. There is the occasional book that I will buy a physical copy of but I will also ‘try’ books out because the cost of a digital book isn’t as damaging to the budget.
My advice to anyone is to create a system for yourself that will allow you to really experience the joy of the written word, especially now.