I love watching people read. A giant with a pink, sweating face is holding a fat paperback Lord of the Rings, and his gaze is so deeply into the story that I wonder if he’ll notice his station when it arrives. Maybe, he has already missed it. Others around him, fellow London Underground commuters, are equally engrossed in their own reading. Books, Kindles, magazines, newspapers, and phones. One boy or girl is a hazy ghost-reflection in the opposite window. He or she is holding a hardback of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. A blurred dark tunnel whizzes through the reflection of his or her long red hair and almost-skeletal fingers. Then, blindingly bright lines whizz through him or her as we arrive at another station. The pig-squealing brakes jolt most people. Only the sweating, reading giant pays no attention. There are no trains in Middle Earth.
I remember reading Her Fearful Symmetry. I was fascinated by Audrey Niffenegger’s way of making ghosts seem real, quirky, and inevitable. Her research included time spent as a tour guide in the Highgate Cemetery in London. Not a place to visit at night, unless you are a ghost. Then, the clattering of the train and the constant shoogling brings me back to a non-reading now. I am heading to Richmond, to investigate spies and write about them. A different kind of spook.
Seven years later, and I am still working on the same spies-story, and my journeys are made more interesting through reading and watching people read. Sometimes, I gaze out the window and remember books I have read or that I feel I should read. I will not make two lists here: each would be far too long. Other times, I wonder about the ghostly process of disappearing into a book. For me, nothing is stranger or more important about reading. Escapism is a wonderful, temporary cure for bad things in life. Stress at work; people dying (which should be confined to stories, I think); or any of the other real ghosts in our lives – all can vanish, for a while, or become more bearable, as your eyes flit across little marks on a page or on a screen.
Escaping, for pleasure, and escaping – to explore with a purpose can be mixed up together in reading, sometimes in ways we fail to notice. I have made use of ideas from some books, which I originally thought I’d read only for pleasure, and then find, years later, that I had sneakily hidden away something very useful. Like reading that the artist L.S. Lowry chose to paint the streets in his pictures a much lighter colour than they really were. He did it so that it was easier for viewers of his paintings to see the many figures – emphasising the bustle of crowds, togetherness and separate, unique individuals – all at the same time. I first read about that many years ago, and only this morning wrote about it when I was preparing an essay -about imagination.
Often, I literally disappear into books or into thinking about them. Well, no I don’t ‘literally disappear’, I’m not The invisible Man. “Harvey!” Isobel says, out of nowhere or out of where I should be. And I return, wondering why I’m getting into trouble for being in two places at once but not knowing that I am. Years ago, I’d do the same thing, and my friends would lose me in John Menzies, and go looking for me amongst the books. It was usually the science fiction section then. They would literally – really literally this time – drag me out of the shop. Why would I voluntarily leave another world? Dundee is okay; but it’s not Mars.
For me, reading books is not just about disappearing, although that can be good. It’s about those special times when you can glimpse that you are in two places at the same moment. I’ll try to give an example – apologies in advance if I can’t transport you to exactly those two places, but I’m not even there myself now. It was more than forty years ago. In Broughty Ferry Library: a squat palace of magic. I must have been around 12 or 13 years old. I loved wandering around the shelves picking up this and that book for what now seems very random reasons. A book might catch my eye because it was unusually fat or thin, new or old – especially if it smelled of dust and tunnels. Often, I’d try a page or so and then put the book back on a shelf, puzzled. Poems – I at first struggled to understand but I liked the taste of the words. And I liked to see books which I had already seen a movie of – like A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan, with it’s elongated titles on the cover, like the titles in the film. It was a book that looked as if it deserved it’s own soundtrack. And maybe I picked up a biography of Barnes Wallis because I saw him played by Michael Redgrave in The Dambusters. Whatever the reason for looking at the book, and perhaps it was just it’s neat white cover, or the photograph of an old man in a white suit – I took the book home and read it twice. Years later , hiding away in a corner of an incredibly noisy factory, and by then I knew little about engineering, although little about aircraft or design, I read it again. And it was the man’s life story which enthralled me – designing vast airships in the early years of the 20th century, and then bombers in the second world whose design enabled them to survive devastating damage, and the famous bouncing bombs, and then ending his career by designing jet aircraft. It was one, central idea the book gave me which has always stayed with me – the idea that the technology to make utterly fantastic machines grew out of the dreams, notions and effort of highly disciplined minds. That idea survived inside of me long after I had rejected every glorification of war.
The point about reading the Barnes Wallis book, and I almost forgot it there by making a political statement, is that when I read that book for the first time, I was conscious of reading it in a much-loved library, in a copy of the book I knew I would always remember, and that I began to see how the life of a famous engineer and my much younger life reading about him could meet in a kind of conversation. And I didn’t have to say anything out loud. All I had to do was read. Yet, by reading and thinking about his story I could join a conversation. I may not have had much more than my own hopes and dreams to say in thoughts but that was enough.
I suppose that was the start of a lot of conversations with people in books. It’s not like I actually went around muttering to Napoleon, or to Ernest Hemingway, or to Sylvia Plath or James Thurber. Mostly, I listened. Yet, reading and especially re-reading, has always created a kind of conversation. And I use it to try to understand what other people have done or felt or overcome or achieved. And I also hope to stay true to the person I feel is the real me: the boy in the library, being in two places at once. In books, our dreams and reality are always illuminating each other. It’s good to have a conversation about that.