I don’t think of myself as a reader. I was never one of those children who would curl up for hours reading book after book. My mum gave me a hard-back edition of the complete works of Jane Austen when I was about ten and all I remember about it was being terrified of its vast size and heaviness; I never read any of it. Thinking about the texts that have made me, I have alighted on a few moments where books seemed to play an important part. A bit like childhood memories which are clarified or made real by a photo which you have seen many times, particular books seem to be associated with images drawn on my memory. My first encounter with ‘proper literature’ was a failed attempt to read Wuthering Heights whilst on holiday in a very dilapidated barn. I only got as far as Chapter 3 and Lockwood’s interrupted night in the cabin-bed: I felt too strongly the possibility of ghosts and nightmares to read on. So much for grown up novels. A copy of The Rattle Bag poetry anthology was a happier introduction to poetry, a source of endless exploration, laughing at silly poems by Ogden Nash but also slightly enthralled by the equally strange worlds of ‘Piano’ and ‘Ozymandias’.
Later, when I was teaching English in secondary schools, I came across this saying, placed in the mouth of C. S. Lewis: “We read to know we are not alone” [from Shadowlands, dir. Richard Attenborough, 1993]. For me, this sums up my relationship with reading: texts which at the time I felt distant from – The Duchess of Malfi, The Great Gatsby, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Beloved – began to show me other worlds and other ways of being in the world, which in turn made me consider my own place in the world. I began to understand that books reflected back to me things I had never experienced and things that I had perhaps felt but not been able to articulate: jealousy, desire, fantasy.
The single book that I love most, however, and that I return to most often is a single volume Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Perhaps this sounds tedious. But I am thrilled by its crisp impossibly-thin pages, each divided into nine pages from the many-volume version, the magnifying glass and instruction manual that accompany it and the etymological tendrils that extend from single words into Latin, Greek, Persian, old Norse or Gaelic. The accretion of meaning through literary, scientific or philosophical examples tells of the complexity of language and forms a narrative which represents how we became who we are. Whenever I have shown it to students there have been gasps of surprise, disbelief and delight: how can there be so many words? Do you actually read this? Why do we need so many words? I think that’s what the books that have made me have shown me: we need all those words because there are so many stories to tell.
— Alison Horgan