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Monday, May 08, 2017

The First Book

The first book to hook me had me before its first page.

When my parents discovered I could read at age four (I was driving them mad constantly reading cereal boxes and bits of newspaper out loud) they bought me a large compendium of original folk stories. It was a huge, heavy, hard cover book of Grimm's fairy tales, and inside its inner sleeves there lay a realistically drawn sprawling map of mystical lands where the tales took place.

This great map of all of fairyland had, naturally, a huge river wending through it. Where there is a river, there life settles. So, I would trace the pale blue line with my fingers, maddened at the way it would simply fall off away from the edge of the book into mystery, my imagination furiously working away to heal the break. I never forgot the pull of the river.

Now, I often look for a river, and when I find one I get itchy feet to follow its lead. An intuitive someone once said that out of the characters of Wind in the Willows I reminded her of Ratty, the river rat that so loved to be beside the water. I had not told her of my fondness for rivers, or indeed water. The river taught me with any clear surface you can see what lies beneath easily enough. But it's the promise of darker waters, of mystery that gooses your skin.

I am a fire sign who loves the water. What kills my fire makes me burn stronger. Light never ends in the dark, it just makes it seem brighter. It's a pithy conundrum, like human beings, we rarely make sense while trying to make sense of our world - and I realised that's how it should be, whilst reaching for the likes of Charles Dickens and the Brontë Sisters. On the day I was so intent on reading Dickens without interruption that I crawled under my bed and stayed there until I turned the last page in my tired hand, I also realised I could both escape and immerse myself in life through books.

It's such experiences that change your life as a reader. The late American author and poet Maya Angelou is quoted to have said any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading (to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs) is good for him. It's not only an easy form of escapism, but provides support during difficult times.

During times of stress or change, I have always turned to books for comfort. They're the one thing that can reliably relax me. It's no surprise that public libraries are my home away from home: An inner sanctum for the inner sanctum. It's about following the river that flows inside all of us. In such times books help ground and provide a sense of place. They remind us why we decide to choose the luminescence of memory when the world turns dark.

I know I'm not the only one who feels that reaching for a book is more than merely grabbing a good read. You might think people would have little time or interest in books when a place has been besieged for years and hunger stalks the streets. Book enthusiasts in Syria, however, have stocked an underground library with numerous volumes rescued from bombed buildings, and users dodge shells and bullets to reach it.

You see, it's not only the river's edge where human life settles. Our books are our rivers that wend inside of us. Believe it, believe in them. They give life. They sustain: Some of them hold us with such clarity, their surfaces are like reflective glass. Some so deep with mystery and dark that make us shiver with every page.

The more we read, in some magical way, the more human we become: we live a little more, our soul becomes a little more sky. And a little more of the river is revealed before we simply fall off away from the edge of the book into mystery.

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