The Summer I Really Started Reading

I’d been given the task of clearing out Mr. Lace’s garage. For ten pounds. Mr. Lace lived in Finchley, a two hour journey involving trains and buses. A long way but ten pounds was a lot of money.

In 1980, LPs cost £2.99. With that ten pounds I bought Join Hands by Siouxsie and the Banshees, and saved the rest to buy a knock-off Perfecto leather biker jacket from Portobello Road. I wish I still had that jacket but I left it in the Lewisham Wimpey after an Adam and the Ants’ gig.

Rearranging Mr. Lace’s garage changed everything. I’d always been a reader, at that stage mostly science fiction, or my father’s books. My father read American detective stories and Wilbur Smiths. Mr. Lace was American, another reason, apart from the ten pounds, I accepted the task of cleaning his garage, curious to see what an American would store. Americans were still exotic in London then, what little I knew of Americans, to me the land of Marvel comics and The Fonz.

Among bicycles of various sizes, empty jars, old copies of the Washington Post, boxes of mysterious machine parts, pallets of tinned goods, and spiders the size of my hand, I discovered two boxes of decomposing books. They were in such an awful state that the books on the top layer fell apart in my hands like ancient fragments of bone at a dig. But the next layer were slightly better preserved.

Entranced by my discovery I began taking the books from the boxes, they seemed to call to me, poor unloved books. They deserved some attention before they crumbled to dust. And so my reading acquired a new depth and voraciousness. I took all those books from the boxes, laying them out in the sun. Mr. Lace didn’t seem to mind. Every so often he’d look in on me, on my perch of an upturned tea chest, and throw me an encouraging wink. A task that should have taken three days took a week.

I’d dip into each book, reading the first two pages. If it caught my attention I’d read on for another ten pages or so. If still hooked, I’d put it aside in a pile that grew over the course of that week. The first book that snagged me so hard I had to finish it was The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren. At the end of that third day, I tucked the book into my jacket, carefully, like a bird with a broken wing, and was grateful of the long train and bus journey home. I finished that story about a heroin junkie in Chicago on the way to Mr. Lace’s garage the next day.

At the end of that week, quite a pile of books had been stacked. After Mr. Lace gave me ten pounds, I asked if I might have the books, if he had no further use for them. Mr. Lace nodded, but prior to allowing me to put them gingerly into the black rubbish bag I had stuffed into my pocket that morning explicitly to bring these books home, he glanced over each title, sometimes with a nostalgic smirk. Over that long summer I read all those books, the start of my adult reading life. Amongst those glorious titles were In Cold Blood by Capote, The Thin Man, Sartre’s Nausea and The Story of O. That summer I went from sporadic reading to never leaving home without a book in the inside pocket of my knock off Perfecto biker jacket. Thanks to The Story of O, that summer also marked my transition from boyhood to horny teenager, but that’s a whole other story.

9 thoughts on “The Summer I Really Started Reading

  1. A lovely snippet. By the time we are adult readers we like to think that our critical likes and dislikes are intelligently, rationally arrived at, but, of course, those critical faculties are built by the books we read, and especially those that come to us at crucial moments of our development – sometimes quite at random, often heavily tinted (tainted?) by sentimental association. An obvious statement, and much better put (because more subtly!) in your piece.

    It would be whimsy to suggest that the ‘right’ book comes at the ‘right’ moment, but still there is something, if not magical, then at least impressive about the way we hold off latching onto an ‘important’ book until we are ‘ready’ for it. I’ve just been re-reading Geoff Dyer’s Zona, and appreciating again the section in which he says: “I suspect it is rare for anyone to see their – what they consider to be *the* – greatest film after the age of thirty. After forty it’s extremely unlikely. After fifty, impossible.”

    I suppose the difference between film and music, on the one hand, and literature on the other, is that during the years of maximum receptiveness (roughly, the teenage years, and perhaps as far as the early to mid twenties) you are likely to be primarily dealing in contemporary films and music (and, hopefully, reaching backwards to see and understand where they came from), whereas with literature it is likely to be primarily ‘classics’, modern or ancient, that you are discovering. Therefore there’s much more likely to be a teacher/librarian/parent/family member/Mr Lace who is the facilitator, rather than just stumbling on a band through Peel, or a film late on telly etc.

    • Thank you, Jonathan.

      The other factor with those early discoveries, particularly those you acquire outside a home, is the resonance a book acquires when its cost is either a substantial chunk of whatever money you have in your pocket, or occasionally in my case, stolen within the folds of a voluminous leather jacket (sorry: wonderful, fusty Dulwich bookshop). Being able to afford a book a fortnight, yet reading a book a day, meant I reread every book, even Mao’s Little Red Book, up to half a dozen times. They were imprinted into my consciousness through repetition, and I find I can recall whole sentences, certainly the moods, thirty years later.

  2. This is not just a precious memory, Anthony, but a so well written piece too; the second paragraph being my favourite! Looking forward to reading the horny teenager adventures, too.

  3. I loved reading this, Anthony. It felt like a ‘rite de passage’. I loved this passage: “At the end of that third day, I tucked the book into my jacket, carefully, like a pigeon with a broken wing, and was grateful of the long train and bus journey home. ” and this one: “After Mr. Lace gave me ten pounds, I asked if I might have the books, if he had no further use for them. Mr. Lace nodded, but prior to allowing me to put them gingerly into the black rubbish bag I had stuffed into my pocket that morning explicitly to bring these books home, he glanced over each title, sometimes with a nostalgic smirk.”

  4. Pingback: The Profound Pleasure of Reading | Time's Flow Stemmed

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