Childhood Reading

Illustration: Jessie Willcox Smith

“Remember the feeling when turning the page was almost too much to bear? As adults grown weary of clichés and redesigned storylines, we too easily forget the initial jolt, the power, almost drug-like, of those first readings, when imagination flared up and seemed capable of consuming us.”
– Roger McGough in The Pleasure of Reading,
  edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992)
“What I sought in books was imagination. It was depth, depth of thought and feeling; some sort of extreme of subject matter; some nearness to death; some call to courage. I myself was getting wild; I wanted wildness, originality, genius, rapture, hope. I wanted strength, not tea parties. What I sought in books was a world whose surfaces, whose people and events and days lived, actually matched the exaltation of the interior life. There you could live.”
– Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (Harper and Row, 1986)
“The first book I ever treasured was a cloth book, a children’s book perhaps, and though I have no memory of the story I do think of it as something sacred … Words were talismanic, transfiguring, making everything clearer, and at the same time more complex. Words were the sluice gates to the mind and to the emotions. Reading for me, then as now, is not a pleasure, but something far more visceral, a brush with terror.”
– Edna O’Brien in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser
   (Bloomsbury, 1992)
“At any moment the impulse might seize me; and then, if the book was in reach, I had only to walk the floor, turning the pages as I walked, to be swept off full sail on the sea of dreams.”
– Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance: An Autobiography
(Simon and Schuster, 1998)

“I lay voluptuously on my stomach on the big bed, blissfully alone, and I felt a thrill which has never left me as I realised that the words coming magically from my lips were mine to say or not say, read or not. It was one of the peaks of my whole life. Slowly my eyes rode across the lines of print, and the New World smiled. It was mine, not something to beg for, book in hand, from anyone who could read when I could not. The door opened, and without hesitation I walked through.”
– M F K Fisher, Among Friends (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004)
“No days, perhaps, of all our childhood are ever so fully lived as those that we had regarded as not being lived at all: days spent wholly with a favourite book. Everything that seemed to fill them full for others we pushed aside, because it stood between us and the pleasures of the Gods.”
– Marcel Proust, A Selection of His Miscellaneous Writings,
   translated by Gerard Hopkins (A Wingate, 1948)
“Books provide the most helpful of road maps for (an) inner journey. They show us the tracks of fellow travellers, footprints left by earlier pilgrims who have trod the path that stretches before us. Their luminosity helps to light our way. As we read we realize that we are not alone.”
– Terry W Glaspey, Books and Reading: A Book of Quotations,
   edited by Bill Bradfield (Dover, 2002)
“In my own story books, before I could read them for myself, I fell in love with various winding, enchanting-looking initials drawn by Walter Crane at the heads of fairy tales. In “Once upon a time,” an “O” had a rabbit running it as a treadmill, his feet upon flowers. When the day came, years later, for me to see the Book of Kells, all the wizardry of letter, initial, and word swept over me a thousand times over, and the illumination, the gold, seemed a part of the word’s beauty and holiness that had been there from the start.”
– Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings
(Harvard University Press, 1984)
“I love to feel a book’s weight in the hand, sniff the faintly acrid scent of old paper … The rough or smooth texture of a cloth cover, the incised, elaborate decoration of the Andrew Lang fairy books, green, blue, purple, grey and crimson, were an excitement in themselves.”
– Catherine Peters in A Passion for Books, edited by Dale Salwak
   (St Martin’s, 1999)
“As I grew older, the images of bleak yet rapturous imposture – particularly in fairy tales – aroused an inescapable sensation of wanting to write. Princesses turned into mute swans, princes into beasts. Think of the eerie lure of the Pied Piper! I began to pursue that truly voluptuous sensation in middle childhood.”
– Cynthia Ozick in The Book That Changed My Life,
  edited by Diane Osen (Modern Library, 2002)

Illustration: Jessie Willcox Smith

4 thoughts on “Childhood Reading

  1. christine

    What a nice collection you’ve gathered about the power of books in the lives of writers. And these illustrations are amazing. I remember cloth books. It would be fun to make a cloth chapbook! Or a cloth broadside. So many possibilities.

    I liked a series of biographies they used to have in the library about the childhoods of famous Americans. Who knows if the stories in them were at all true to life! But I enjoyed pretending that I knew these children before they made history.

  2. Julie

    These are wonderful quotes, Michelle. I love the photographs, too.

    Christine has a fantastic idea…a cloth chapbook! Yes, I love the smell of those old cloth books.

    I was a child in a very remote area, and I’ll never forget the books that opened up the world for me. Imagination, adventure, history, culture, etc. Books were (and are) a lifeline for me. The quotes you have here describe the feelings beautifully.

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