One of those ever-popular media stories about writers is the ‘Books that Changed Me’ feature. Writers are asked to name outstanding books in their reading memory that have wrought some deep change. Often they name the great classics: War and Peace, Middlemarch, Madame Bovary, and so on. Or they might mention books read in the teenage years: Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird.
For me, though, the books that changed me were those I read as a child, when I was the Very Hungry Bookworm who devoured everything. I remembered those books so vividly – or I thought I did. As I’d read them, with almost unbearable intensity, I’d felt all the things I was supposed to feel, and a lot of things I wasn’t.
There were books I loved, books I hated, books that prompted me to write my own stories. And there was mesmerising terror. The Jabberwock, the Groke, the Dark Island, the Stoats and Weasels.
But why were these books so vital to me? And was I even remembering them correctly? Slowly the idea came to me that I should go back and read some of those books again, and write something about what I discovered.
I’m sure now I was subconsciously hoping to have a better understanding of my younger, and subsequently my adult, self. At first, however, I didn’t articulate that thought at all clearly. It seemed to be more about the books than about me. Being a journalist, at first I had the idea of pitching a feature for the Saturday edition of The Age, for the arts or books pages. But the more I thought about it, the more my premise seemed better suited for a book. I would write a bibliomemoir: a book about the author’s experience of reading books. It would consist of, say, a dozen or so essays, one about each of my childhood favourites, showing how I felt about them as an adult. Then I’d tie them all up in a big nostalgic bow. Immediately, I fell in love with my idea. Wouldn’t everybody else?
The first thing to do was to set limits. I would write about fiction I read between the ages of seven and eleven – old enough to read, but not ready yet for adult books. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, the pre-Harry Potter years, when there was nothing like the range of books for children there is now, but even so, it was hard to limit myself to the books that had made the deepest impression on me. Every time I crossed out a title, it was like deserting an old friend.
Still, at last, I had my list: 15 books and one collection of schoolgirl comics. I raided my home library, borrowed books from family and friends, and ordered copies over the internet until I had a row of my favorites on the bookshelf.
How enticing they looked, my old friends! Alice, Winnie-the-Pooh, Ratty and Moley and Mr Toad, Moomintroll, Reepicheep, the Magic Pudding, and a few others you might never have heard of. And the March sisters from Little Women, which I’d hated, but felt bound to include, because millions of girls had loved it, and what was the contrarian spirit in me that had not succumbed to that love?
I felt excited, but a little nervous. Could these books really live up to my golden memories? Suppose I was disappointed?
The project progressed. For each chapter, I first wrote down what I remembered about the book, and then reread it, making notes as I went about the differences in content and in my emotional responses. This, I hoped, would make a distinction between memory and reality, and also between young Jane and adult Jane. At the same time, I hoped the two Janes would find common ground. Gradually the process was becoming a little less about the books, a little more about me.
The words poured out of me, and so did the exclamation marks. Over and over again, I was amazed. Amazed at how delightful it was to revisit these magic places and characters – but also amazed at how treacherous my memory was. I’d remembered so many things wrong.
Every book set up a different challenge for me that I hadn’t anticipated. Take Enid Blyton. I’d loved her books with such a passion, devoured them greedily, then hunted out the next one. But what was this? On page one of The Castle of Adventure, I discovered Blyton was not a bad writer, as adults often said: she was a truly terrible writer. And there were hundreds of pages to go! And her stories were so blatantly sexist: the boys got to have most of the fun and adventure, the girls tagged along to scream and lay out the picnics. The challenge for me was to find what it was in these books that had so captivated me, and to find the girl who was held captive.
That idea of tying everything up with a nice nostalgic bow was soon abandoned. Yes, there was nostalgia; but there was so much more, some of it very dark and disturbing to me. I was reliving my childhood fears: sometimes they seemed ridiculous, other times I felt again the shivers and the hideous compulsion to turn the page to confront the Jabberwock or the Dunwich Horror. And I relived young Jane’s excruciating loneliness, her shy awkwardness, her failure to make friends, her refuge in books. I came to understand her deep fear: that she would fade away to nothing. And the deepest fear of all: that this was something she wanted.
Above all, as the rereading revived memories not only of the books but of myself at a young age, I discovered that I was not the child I thought I was. Although I’d never known what I would find – that was part of the thrill of writing the book – this was nevertheless not what I had expected. For example, I had the surprising realisation that young Jane had hated Little Women because she’d refused to identify with that classic role model for young writers, Jo March, who I now saw was just right for her. Why the refusal? Weirdly, because young Jane saw Jo as a rival. She never blinked at the kind of blithe sexism and racism that made my adult 21st century hackles rise. But she devised her own ways around it. No interesting girls in this story? No problem: she’d be one of the boys.
Then, there were surprises that threatened to upend the project. Over and over again, what I’d concluded about myself from reading one book would be completely overturned when I got to the next book. But that was also what made the whole exploration so interesting.
At the end, I did reach a few conclusions. About the books, about why I needed them, and about what sort of child I’d been. I decided to my relief that I liked young Jane: she was both weaker and stronger than I’d thought. She’d automatically interpreted her reading in a way that suited her. These books had shaped her, but she had also shaped the books.
Jane Sullivan is a novelist and literary journalist who writes the Saturday ‘Turning Pages’ column about books for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. Her last novel, Little People (Scribe, 2011), was shortlisted for the CAL-Scribe Fiction Award and the UK Encore Award for a second novel. Storytime, her bibliomemoir, will be published in 2019 by Ventura Press.