I read from an early age, and it’s fair to say that I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read.
I was always reading. It became more important to me than all the computer games, imaginative play, films and TV put together.
Without reading, I would be a different person. That’s not to say those other pastimes could not have filled the gaps left by words, but they would not have filled them as widely or as completely. The breadth and depth of shared ideas in books is what I love the most. I got drawn in and captured and have never felt the need to escape.
When I was a young reader, it helped that I had already built up a storehouse of ideas and images from films, TV and computer games. I had seen what it meant to be sad and mad and beautiful. I had seen what a tornado looked like, or a thirty-foot wave smashing into the deck of a ship, or a hard-boiled detective smiling sardonically through cigarette smoke. I melded what I’d seen in my imaginative play. I played out inventive scenes on my bedroom floor and exercised my imagination between the plants and dirt in the rockeries of our front garden. What I didn’t know I made up.
But how could words strung one after the other on the page compete with films, TV and computer games?
To me, there was no competition. The expression of each story was a conduit into the same continuum. Each one was a new way for me to consume other people’s stories. I saw no distinction, instead, my mind cross-fertilised each with the other and brought my inner worlds to life.
I was a frequent visitor to our local library and had worked my way through all the children’s books in the low boxes for oversized hardbacks. (Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix the Gaul books and Usbourne’s All About Monsters immediately come to mind. The magic potion of Asterix, the menhirs carried by Obelix before he collected great tottering piles of Roman legionnaire helmets. I remember a gory illustration of a knight in spiked armour fighting a coiled serpent/dragon/worm, his spikes piercing and cutting the worm deeply as it coiled around him in an attempt to crush him and drown him.) Even so, I had begun to drift away from the printed word and into the world of computer games.
That was when something pulled me back in.
We would visit my Nana every Saturday. Then one week, my Nana bought me issue 1 of the relaunched Eagle comic and also, as an afterthought, Prog 257 of 2000AD. I loved them from those first issues, and began to collect them. Saturdays became my favourite day of the week: bus into town, do some shopping, and then head to Nana’s flat where my Mum would have a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a chat, and I’d read my comics on the floor. I’d usually read them both before my Dad came to pick us up on his way home from work. At the time, Eagle and 2000AD were seen as childish things for childish minds, but they introduced a lot of adult themes and became, 2000AD in particular, unsuitable for a younger audience. The stories in those comics, told in serialised form, have stayed with me. They have coloured my taste and fictional sensibilities ever since.
I had been reading comics for a couple of years when I went on a school trip to Switzerland. To sit close to a girl I liked I asked to borrow the novel she was reading so I could ‘pretend’ to read it and stick around. Instead, I became gripped by the story and by the time we made it to the ferry that would take us to continental Europe I had read over half the book. The book was Christine by Stephen King.
Around the same time, Frank Miller and Alan Moore began creating comics directed at mature audiences. The stories dealt with adult themes, and the comics became known as ‘Graphic Novels’. Presumably, in an attempt to reduce the childish stigma of being stories told with pictures.
Back at the library, I graduated from the children’s section and thanks to Christine I started reading books from the genre ghetto of the library where horror, science fiction, and fantasy were bundled together in the same area. I continued with Stephen King and started exploring the worlds of James Herbert, Shaun Hutson, Robert R. McCammon, Guy Masterton and Dean Koontz. I read a lot of horror fiction, and whether that was because of my experience with nearly cutting my finger off attempting to skim a glass shard or with horror movies I don’t know. I’ve always liked the darker stories. I have no idea how the librarians allowed me to borrow those books but I suppose they must have been used to me by then.
I read my Dad’s old copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Thus began my journeys into fantastic lands with the likes of David Gemmel, David Eddings, Michael Moorcock, Robert Jordan, Raymond E. Feist and Stephen Donaldson.
I loved watching the black and white science fiction movies and serials and found Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert E. Howard and Ursula Le Guin to read.
Anyway, you get the idea. Each mentioned author was a starting point for many more.
Reading, for me, is impossible to consume passively. My imagination becomes an active participant. I do not skim and must take my time. I read carefully and with deliberation. I enjoy it. Savour it. Commit it to memory. I have fuller and better recall and comprehension that way. I try to figure out what might happen, what could happen and what was going to happen. I try to understand what is important by what is described or shown, or by what is left out.
If a work is good, reading it subsumes me. I become part of the story. I give my complete attention to the book. I love to be with and get to know the characters. They become my friends and sworn enemies. I am happy when they succeed and feel for them when they fail. My tears and fist pumps of joy are as urgent and compelling as anything I’ve felt in the ‘real’ world.
Reading is the finest and best way I can transport myself to another world without creating one myself.
And this is where all this has been leading.
All these containers of story: books, computer games, films, television and imaginative play have been, for me, a prerequisite and preparation for creating worlds and characters and stories.
To become a writer.