Some of my earliest memories are of long, joyous hours alone in my bedroom with magical characters and their imaginary worlds. The first book I fell head over heels in love with was Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I read indiscriminately as a child, borrowing books from friends and libraries and secretly from my mother’s bedside cabinet. (She had a secret stash of Mills & Boon and self-help books in there and her choice of titles provided a previously hidden window into her psyche.)
I wasn’t a social butterfly at school, I wasn’t sporty or a nerd but what always brought me joy was reading. Which brings me to my question: why is it that some people have a lifelong love of reading for fun and others don’t? Is there a series of factors that creates a lover of books or is it pure chance? Here is my best guess at what makes a book lover:-
Ability to read
While collecting books for their aesthetic appeal brings its own pleasure, truly falling in love with a book centres around the experience of reading it. Figures from the Human Development Index show that (here comes the rare math bit) two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women and very low literacy rates are concentrated in South and West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Literacy rates are 99% in countries including the UK, USA, Sweden, Korea, Poland, Russia and the Vatican City; but in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Mali, South Sudan and Chad, they are between 22 and 38%.
The ability to read of course, doesn’t mean people can read well or choose to read for fun. Reading volunteers and literacy programmes such as those run by the National Literacy Trust in the UK help make readers more confident so they can concentrate on the story being told as opposed to individual words.
Access to books is a key ingredient in the making of any book lover. How can you be a book lover without the chance to realise you like books? Books at home, libraries, book shops and books online are invaluable here, slowly but surely seducing the would-be reader with the power of words and imagination.
Exposure to readers
Would-be readers can be hugely influenced by individuals who already read. Do you remember your family and friends reading to you in your formative years? Did you regularly make time to sink into the sofa with a book each? Did you go to storytime at your local library?
Our daughter is three years old and is just learning to pick out letters in books and put them together with sounds. I hope that even when she can read independently that we will continue to read to her, and maybe take turns in choosing books to read to each other. The oral tradition, the sharing of stories is always special and communal reading is one way to instil a lifelong love of books.
Identifying with characters and situations
There have been times when such is the insight a book provides that it has been more of a friend to me in difficult situations than even my real-life friends and family. We see shades of ourselves and our loved ones in many of the characters and situations we read, and it is because of this peculiar power that books make us feel less lonely. It is possible to find comfort time and time again within the pages of familiar books, like a homecoming. (I am tempted to go and reread a favourite novel right now!)
Thirst for knowledge
I like to think that the two characteristics book lovers tend to have in common are humility and curiosity. I think that one of the reasons book lovers read is because they are aware that there is so much out there to learn and that to read is to further your education. For me, the archetypal book lover has a need to understand the world and its inhabitants.
It’s a delicious feeling to bury yourself in a new world, to forget about your responsibilities and troubles for a while and to take a walk in someone else’s shoes. Books offer a refuge from everyday life. They offer different voices, other rules and unfamiliar settings. They can be anywhere on the sliding scale of the impossible to the realistic, but suffice to say they will always take you out of your immediate surroundings and onto another plane where possibilities are endless.
Alternative modes of entertainment, particular those central to our home lives, such as films, television, the internet, radio and computer games compete with the time available to us for reading. These other activities could be perceived to be more passive and therefore more relaxing. The book lover knows that there is rarely a more satisfying form of entertainment than a good read. The trick is to find a book that resonates and to introduce would be readers to the variety of options out there for book lovers. Comic readers might like graphic novels; commuters might be too tired to actively read but might enjoy an audiobook; sceptics might be sucked in by a charismatic author’s book reading.
So, that is my account of what makes a book lover. Life is busier now than it used to be, but I feel strangely unprepared to face the day if there isn’t a book in my bag. I am always looking to reclaim that freefall feeling from my childhood of delving completely into a make-belief world. Have I missed anything out here? What brings you to read?
‘That I can read and be happy while I am reading, is a great blessing.’ Anthony Trollope