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The Cure For Sleep - Reading

Welcome to the eighth issue in Season Two of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book which you can read in full over on my free Substack. This month’s invitation to write concerns reading: subscribers were invited to respond to the following prompt: Share a scene or story from your intimate life as a reader: your relationship to an author, a book, a character, or only passages/lines from a story or poem. Or: tell us about an experience of reading, the act of it – alone or with others – that has made a mark on you.

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.

No Such Thing as The ‘Wrong’ Books

In the past, I was always reading the wrong books.
Before the first year of secondary school, I could be found in every saloon bar of the Louis L’Amour books on my Dad’s bookcase, tossing back the hard spirits, going all in on 5-card stud, and wondering what the girls did in the upstairs rooms with cowboys freshly washed in copper baths.

Take any collection of dead poets’ musings offered up by first- and second-form English teachers and toss them aside. You’ll find me in Middle Earth battling orcs and relishing the poetry of made up languages instead.

I’d rather Kill a Mockingbird than sit down in Bleak House to study my O level texts. What the Dickens were they thinking of. Keats … miserable blighter. I spent those days ignoring the official book list, wishing instead that I could be wandering Lonely as a Cloud.

Did I even know what words were worth? Seek me out in wartime tanks brought vividly to life by Sven Hassel. Reading? I’d say. No hassle. Before he started writing Bourne novels, the appropriately named Eric van Lustbader was corrupting my teenage years with ninja stealth, my flickering torch under the covers revealing explicit storylines that widened youthful eyes.

The wrong books. Always, the wrong books.

Coleridge sailed into view for A levels but I was more interested in finding my own stately pleasure-dome than considering the plight of an old sailor who brought misfortune on himself due to his carelessness with a crossbow. I suspect the novels of Wilbur Smith were more thumbed than the reading list presented by Brian Watson, my long-suffering English teacher.

The world of work loomed into view. But the whole business of ‘air publications’, Queen’s Regulations, and weighty tomes on the net – explosive quantities to be stored in reinforced buildings – blew the doors shut on any curiosity I might have had to read more widely.

Roll on fifteen years and the hero of this dime novel is selected to study with the future grown-ups. But, not for me the serious business of the Suez Crisis and the Six-Day War, or the relative merits of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. I could be found in the eight row of the impressive lecture theatre in a race with a colleague to finish The Goblet of Fire before drowning my evenings with goblets of wine.

Tell me to read, I won’t. Show me the Essential Reading list, I will ignore it. Fighting. Always reading the wrong books. And not very many of them, if the truth be told.

Roll forward: a late-blossoming realisation. As Stephen King said: ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’

And I want to write. I so want to write. Perhaps a self-set reading challenge then. Fifty-seven books for my 57th year. Catching up with books I should already have read. Picking the titles myself. Nothing is prescribed or proscribed. No-one mutters ‘you’ve read that before’.

Anti-heroes pace the streets of Edinburgh; late-blossoming writers create instant classics; Bond, I am shaken and stirred; vicarious adventures with Jenny, she’s Tough; going analogue with Alex Roddie but keeping a tally digitally.

The floodgates open. Reading is no longer a chore. It is a pleasure that unlocks a writer’s words. These words.

Barrie Thomson

There were no books in our house.

No, that’s not correct, there were books, but they were locked in the bedroom of the random uncle, and that meant I wasn’t allowed even to see them on their shelves.

The random uncle had been swept up with us when our house in the East End was slum-cleared and we were moved to the red-brick housing estate box. The books he brought with him glittered in my imagination; I knew I wanted to read, the picture books at school were already dead weight. There was treasure behind that bedroom door.

Then the RAF accepted him and he was no longer part of our family. I was the youngest but the complications of gender, relationship and noisy nightmares meant that I was moved into his room. I held my breath as I followed my bedding through that door for the first time…the books were still there!

Instantly, in that golden moment, my world expanded: five…. ten…a hundred times. There was nothing here that would be considered children’s books; the uncle was a frustrated traveller, and here were foreign lands, strange places, people with different-coloured skin.

Yet the greatest joy was that there were no librarians to send me back to replace my choice of books on the shelves because they were ‘too old for me’ (the ongoing battle I had at the public library).

Nights became adventures, I saved precious pocket-money for torch batteries, I took flight from that unheated bedroom, landing softly (I mustn’t let the parents know I’m not asleep) in Africa, Canada, Australia.

In the morning I went richer to school, knowing my teachers for what they were. They wanted to ground me in Sunderland and I tolerated their leaden feet. Come nightfall, I could journey once more.

Geoff Cox

In 2003, my partner and I arrived in the high, thin air of Mexico City at the start of a year long adventure.

The culture shock was massive, a combination of altitude, the bustle of 10 million people, unfamiliar food, smells, faces and so much noise. The hostel overlooked the Zocalo, with its Spanish colonial buildings sitting on top of an Aztec temple, the main square of the city. I felt homesick, shocked and disoriented and searched for the familiar.

We travelled lightly and the hostel had a shelf full of books left by travellers coming and going from all parts of Central America. I found a battered copy of McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy, a story of his travels around Southern Ireland. I took it with me when we hopped on the bus south to the Mayan riviera and read it cover to cover on the 20-hour journey, imagining the green fields of West Cork as we drove along the parched Mexican highways scattered with cacti and dust.

Arriving in Playa del Carmen in Yucatan – with its turquoise sea, blazing white beaches and another hostel – I swapped my book for another battered novel and lay reading in a hammock.

That carried me on to a jungle traveller village in Guatemala with an open-air jungle canopy bathroom and howler monkeys in the trees as I sat reading on the loo.

And so it went. I read, I passed my book on, I swapped and shared battered books with global travellers all the way through Belize, LA and onward to Fiji, on campsites and hostels across New Zealand and Australia. The comfort blanket of novels and autobiographies and books I never dreamed I would read. Adventure, poetry, classics. Anything that was there- I was open to it all.

I have never read so widely and prolifically, even during my literature degree. I had no expectations, no requirements, I just read what was available and there for me. No judgement.

My final swap was in a hotel on the Khao San Road in Bangkok after winding our way through south east Asia. I ended my journey and flight back to London with another story of travel, another story of wandering in Ireland. The books carried me, were my blanket, my thread, my familiar, my safety in a year of absolute freedom and uncertainty.

helen

I often search the Internet for a particular edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

But all I really remember is that it was chunky, yellowish with grey lettering and illustrations, and so finding it will be pure luck. For years I refused to buy another copy, longingly waiting to come across that edition I used to own, hoping to restore it to my library and alongside the book regain something else lost a long time ago too: a sense of home.

My budding library, 30 books at most, was thrown away when I was 19 by people who just wanted me and my meagre possessions out of the flat I had lived in all my life. Thirty years on, I can say that losing all my books then was more traumatic than having to leave that flat, because already at that point in my life my books were my home.

I was the only reader in my family, and yet I have been shaping my life around books ever since I could read. I began with the very few books within my reach, but when I started to really want to choose what I read, public libraries were not enough – I became very greedy about surrounding myself with my own books. My family was disintegrating, and my library became something to hold on to.

As for most young teenagers, I had very little money of my own. That copy of Huckleberry Finn was in English, bought from the British Council in Lisbon, imported and expensive. I probably spent all my monthly allowance on it. It became the cornerstone of my library and of my life as I wanted it to be, in a way. That is why it meant so much to me and why I am still looking for it.

Maria Simões 

The stories of Raymond Carver

The first shock was the cover. I’d remembered a series of small images – mini lino prints – of everyday scenes, domestic scenes. In fact there were only eight images, and two of them were a whisky bottle and a glass. In the others, figures were disembodied: legs, arms, the back view of two people in a car. The faces that could be seen had harsh black slits for eyes, for a mouth.

And then I opened the book, and memory went awry. I’d written a date on the fly leaf: May 1985. I was 25. This couldn’t be. I’d convinced myself I’d bought this book when I was at university. I left university in 1981.

I read a few lines of the first story. The language is spare, sparse: a waitress describes serving a very large man in a restaurant. I remembered reading it in 1985: my amazement at what the simplest language could achieve.

The lack of similes, of metaphor, made the emotional impact of the stories even more intense. This was real. This was true. I believed every word. Nothing was wasted. I absorbed the stories as if by osmosis, and wondered how he did it. The stories were perfect. His words described the quiet desperation of the characters in a way I had never seen before, the loneliness, the alcoholism, the despair.

1985. The year I had my first abortion. The year I lost my job. The year I woke up in many strange beds around the city, wondering if I had the money in my pocket to get home. I never made the connection between the life I was leading and the stories I was reading.

Many things have changed. But looking back, it can sometimes seem as if, in that year, I was sleepwalking: a bit-part player in my own life. Like a Raymond Carver character, hungover, staring into space.

Kerry Whitley

It was during the summer of 1977 that I read Siddhartha, a novel by Herman Hesse about a young man seeking enlightenment.

At that time in Ireland, a combination of Troubles in the north, and control exerted by the Catholic church in the south, weighed heavily. Having just finished secondary school, my friends and I talked of escaping to London or Europe where we could support ourselves by busking, chambermaiding or fruit-picking. First, though we needed money to get there. I got a job as a lifeguard in a small, men’s sports club. Why the management employed a 17-year old girl, with no qualifications, to rescue men from a swimming pool, is curious, but thankfully my limited skills were rarely called upon. Instead I spent hours enveloped in chlorine fumes, reading Siddhartha, lent to me by my brother.

As water sploshed rhythmically against the blue mosaic walls, it felt appropriate that one of the central characters of the book was a river. I read how Siddhartha learns, from watching the water, that time is an illusion which distracts one from living, and that all time exists merely in the present moment; to live fully one must give attention to the present. For me, these ideas were revolutionary. I had arrived into the world with a soul blackened from original sin and much of my life had been predicated on the actions of our forefathers. Fleeing into freedom had seemed like the best option but suddenly I was not so sure. There on my battered metal stool, my feet damp and clothes stinking of chlorine, I felt the words gliding from the pages of the small paperback, dancing across the glittering water, splashing onto the concrete surround, flowing back to pirouette inside every cell of my body. And so, with fingertips a-tingle, the next stage of my life began.

Sheila de courcy

The Nonsense of Edward Lear

Dancing magical letters on a page – my Nan’s description of going from confused symbol onlooker to avid reader. ‘One day it clicked’, she would demonstrate finger to thumb. I heard the story many times, often as I gripped my little blue readers journal with ‘cause for concern’ scratched within it.

It must have confused my parents, because we traveled many places via book spines before bedtime, but my shyness had got us all into trouble. The issues remained none-the-less; salty streaks of heat as I stood on a plastic brown chair, unable to spell rhinoceros in front of a horrified small-faced audience.

Still it haunts me. Even as the results from my Bachelor’s degree pinged into my inbox (subject: English language & literature), I shivered at the memory of words once twisting unpleasantly.

But there was one person who always made sense to me, with lyrics like spinning tops and sparkling sweets in my mind; Edward Lear. Complete Nonsense & Other Verse for breaking through to sanity. To me and my stoic friend Rosey bear, lots of honey wrapped up in money was indeed the best way to escape reality. And, as an adult living in a canal boat, a pea green boat is definitely the best vehicle to get there.

I keep a second-hand copy. It is a brilliantly insane yellow at my bedside, just in case my dreams run quiet and the night grows tall. Limericks are often dismissed as a writing form, but if possible you shouldn’t turn away a smile. Poetry is self-aware, offering extra space to the reader, adding some fun and its freedom. Edward Lear twirls you in and creates movement in your mind; happiness bubbling the brain.

So my Nan was telling the truth, because Lear’s words, they danced – by the light of the moon.

jen ratcliffe

I’ve loved so many books from reading since a young person to now in my mid-forties. What books have meant so much to me?

The answer was they all have: I have always felt all the books that have passed my way have given something to sustain me.

But the book I’m thinking of now is The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.

I went to the cinema on a whim to watch the film version and then the book came afterwards: not something I would normally do, and to write of it here I knew I had to reread again (and with Covid visiting I’ve had the time).

The book has always meant so much to me as an exploration of faith, love and belief. Themes that I think a lot about in my life. The book contains so much of those human feelings like hate, jealousy and bitterness – all those we’d rather not let others see – but also how, in spite of ourselves and our feelings, we are drawn to look for answers. It explores how we can find a belief through our suffering even when we are so opposed to it and the circumstances that has brought us to that.

A wonderful book that I will always treasure reading again and again.

Monique Kennedy

Michael had a penis named Ralph…

…and none of the moms knew about it, these moms who trusted Judy Blume because of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? and Tiger Eyes. But my seventh-grade friends and I sure knew about Ralph. We read and reread Forever, the story of first love and lost virginity between Michael and Katherine.

Love starved, nearly knock-kneed skinny, told by an uncle that I looked like Olive Oyl, by others that I was a carpenter’s dream: flat as a board and never been nailed. (Every decade has its own version of 7th grade awful.) I was sure a boy would never love me the way Michael loved Katherine. Filled with longing, remarkably insecure, intrigued by sex, overruled by terror, craving a tenderness that I wasn’t sure existed. Nice men narwhal-like, heard of but ever so rarely seen.

My early efforts at trying to attract my own Michael were laughable: I bought a one-piece bathing suit with plunging neckline and leopard skin print to wear while prancing around the Apollo Pool, gnawing on my Charleston Chews and picking the red remainders of Swedish fish out of my braces, always hoping that when I came up out of the water nothing came out of my nose. Lying on my towel, waiting to be adored, flat enough to be mistaken for African safari roadkill.

Looking back now at 54, it would be easy to be sad that this was something I wanted at that age and sadder still that it was something I thought didn’t exist. Instead, a kind smile for that girl whose aches made her foolish and clumsy.

She learned to write her own story.

Sheila Knell

Reading and I have become estranged, and it picks at my peace of mind.

My earliest memories are of bedtime stories read by my mum. Her mouth topsy turvy as I stared up from my pillow, her lips kneading and spilling words that toppled down to my ears like confetti.

From the age of 6, my little life became nestled snug in the corners of wild and whimsical stories. Illicitly, at night, I would snake a desk lamp into my wardrobe, closing the door so only a chink of light betrayed me and curl up beneath the dress hems and shirt tails to scuttle between pages. When I was older, I would traipse over the fields to find a tree beneath whose boughs I could read for hours in peace.

I did my A-level paper on Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory. My mother bought me tickets to see him talk. She had dressed up with due reverence for those ‘intellectuals’ who would surely be in attendance and was shocked that he held forth in a dingy pub, populated by eclectic fans of his science fiction writing; he was fabulous and kind, a seismic imagination in wool and corduroy.

In my twenties, leading a vagabond and often solitary life, a book would be my companion for a few short weeks, then left on trains and buses – gift to a new home – as my backpack could hold no more.

Now, in my 40s in my own home, the walls are so full of books, but they are not mine. My small collection is minimal, drowned out, lingering neglected on the nightstand. My husband’s reading is dominant, voluminous. Mine, intensely private and small – but insistent – tapping on my heart like a grief until I carve a space for it once more.

Louise ratcliffe

Synchronicity? Some people would say it doesn’t exist.

That coincidences occur but have no meaning. And to assert that they are, in some way, ‘symbolic’ is pure fallacy.

I feel sorry for the sceptics. They’ll never experience that flutter inside; the recognition that something greater than the logical brain is intervening to tell you to trust your heart.

How else could I explain the landing of a poem into my sphere of attention, exactly when I needed it? Every word fitting perfectly into place. Every line a reflection of my soul’s ache. Buried deep in pain from shouldering responsibilities for other people’s wellbeing, I’d lost sight of my spirit.

Eight years earlier, I’d gifted myself a short career break. Alongside a mentor, I started to explore the craft of nature writing and vowed to continue with this thread after returning to work. Frayed by the realities of managing a step-family and a challenging professional role, my plan unravelled.

My mentor’s monthly newsletter continued to drop into my inbox, each update ending with a poem. This one was accompanied by an intriguing illustration- a dark-eyed woman immersed in undergrowth, surrounded by wild beasts, snakes, snails and animal skulls. Black and white, except for her heart- anatomically drawn, coloured blood-red. Pulsating off the page.

That was the giveaway. Thank you, Joy Harjo, for releasing “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” into the Universe. And to my mentor, for channelling it towards me at just the right time.

jo regan

We were supposed to sit still…

…but I was so delighted I’d wriggle like a puppy and halfway through the story I would slide inch by inch off the cushion onto the cool grass, ending up with green ankles and knickers. The teacher with the kind eyes and a voice like honey read to us every afternoon that summer term, as the sun tickled my face and it was too hot to be inside.

I felt sick in my tummy every morning before school, even in those days. At lunchtime I’d stand with my back to the wall, watching the other kids play games. In class, they made naughty children sit next to me, as a kind of punishment. I would invent all kinds of ailments to keep me at home. If that didn’t work I would hide in the woods, lurk in the park, or hang around the shops, anything to avoid going to school. I stayed in the shadows; nobody noticed me.

But Stig of the Dump changed all that. I longed to hear what Barney had been up to, the lonely boy with his imaginary friend. If I missed a day at school that meant I missed a chapter, and if I missed a chapter I would never know what happened in the end.

The teacher with the kind eyes and soft voice got sick, a few days before the summer holidays began. I begged the supply teacher to read Stig of the Dump, but he was a hard, uncompromising man more used to unruly pupils.

Half a century later I realise I never did find out what happened in the end.

cathy robinson

I drove in hard memory nails into those fifteen pages; a stash of words that have stalked me and unleashed the past, calling out my name. Those words took me by the hand and ragdoll-shook me; an out of control moment that left its mark.

It was a happy time, family knitted together, warming each other’s needs. Four wheels treading the road to a seaside of possibilities. West Scottish coast scent seeping into the car; a week to roam in my books and stick family together. A seasalt sanctuary, lashings of waves and wonder to tease and taste.

I chose the chilled air of early morning to tour the pages of Robert James Waller. A wave of time had washed up this book and beached it into my hands. Love from Ted, 2004. A scribbled sentiment once written from a friend, a lover ….

I chose A Canticle for Roadcat. A short essay about a cat that drifted into Robert’s life and shared time and place with him, becoming a trusted companion for many years. The story provoked my togetherness; a tsunami of words tore into me causing a shockwave which rippled through my body. A sob big enough to suck the moon from orbit erupted inside me. The words smote me, stroked me with pathos. I ran for open space, soothing sea and a sprinkle of calm, but the sobbing would not stop. The flimsy, weak handles of the baggage I carried broke and spilled over into the streets of Seaside Town.

Can words alone grasp one with such intensity? Was it a collision of state of mind; of place, end of journey expectation and my jangled-up bag of DNA controlling the moment?

Those pages have remained shut.

STeve Harrison

Once or twice a term, the teacher would hand out the Scholastic Book Club catalogue for us to take home. I studied this document with great care and my heart pounded as I compiled a library in my mind from its contents. I looked with envy as the ordered books were handed out to others and carelessly slung into slumped backpacks. I dreamed of one day knowing this kind of extravagance. But, I was also acutely aware that it would not be fair to ask my mother for a book from one of these catalogues. The sensitive second child, it would have pained me to see the anguish mar her face when she would have to tell me that it would not be possible.

And so, to this day, I don’t know from where I summoned the courage to ask for one. But one book compelled me, magnetised me, and I knew that I had to have it. Admittedly, the reasons were far from literary. I was nine years old and the cover was the most glorious shade of purple and my middle name was in the title and this seemed reason enough.

Mum said yes.

The air was thick with summer heat and humidity and the clouds were heavy boulders hung low in the sky the day my book arrived. Fat drops of rain splotched on to the concrete path as I ran the last hundred metres home, thunder rumbling and pushing me on. Straight to my room I went and lifted my book from my bag. The storm crashed down as I began reading the opening pages of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and the course of my life was sealed.

Now, as a secondary school English teacher and mother to a girl named Charlotte, many copies of Jane Eyre live in my library but there is still something that draws me to that purple cover from all those long years ago.

EMILY

There is an exquisite intensity to the tiredness in the early months of first-time motherhood.

You haven’t the foreknowledge for it to tarnish into all the tiredness that there will be, the years of broken sleep, the decades. You are tired beyond all previous imagining, but you do imagine it will end. It must, surely?

During that time, I found myself in the library near our new home. It was warm, the librarians were friendly, and there was a shelf of parenting books. I knew I didn’t want to be told to leave my baby to cry, but I felt I should linger there, show willing. A pale, novel-sized paperback caught my eye. A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, by Rachel Cusk. I’d read one of her stories, a million years ago. Perhaps she had something for me.

So I borrowed it, and read it, cover to cover, during a day of epic breastfeeding, the three of us on the sofa. Me, the baby, and Rachel. Rachel knew it all, knew all about the darkness lurking under the tiredness; the contrast between imagined ranks of immaculate, blissed-out mothers and my increasingly fragile self; the existential angst in the small hours. And the guilt at this. Oh, the guilt!

And as I read, I realised that my favourite passages had the page corners turned down. Someone had literally been here before me, had felt the same connection – someone possibly in the next street. The isolation I had felt was whisked away, once by the book and now by this unknown person – and their proximity. The next week, I set up a group for local parents. Over the months that followed, as I got to know each exhausted mother, I wondered: Was it you? Did your fingers turn down those corners? What the hell do we do now?

amelia H
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