I spent some time this weekend going through cardboard boxes full of books, in preparation for our move abroad. (This was no mean feat, as Littleboy 2 now has an appalling case of chicken pox, and clung to me like a limpet 24/7, crying MUMMY every time I so much as went to the loo. He looks like a plague child, covered in suppurating sores, and I can barely leave the house in case people start dawbing crosses on our front door).
I have a heck of a lot of books, and it occurred to me as I sorted through them, my bookshelves really represent a little potted history of my life. So here it is. Nappy Valley - a life in literature....
The precocious reader
I was voracious reader from the time I could open a book (although I don't know what happened to all those childhood favourites - and I quite fancy revisting all my Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne of Green Gables stories now). As a teenager, I read constantly, devouring anything from Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jane Austen to 80s bonkbusters like Riders or the dreadful Flowers in the Attic. Then, when I was 17, my library suddenly multiplied. I entered and won a short story competition in 'Just 17' magazine and the prize was £150 worth of Penguin Books. My mother sensibly directed me towards decent literature, rather then letting me buy up the entire oeuvre of Jackie Collins. And so it was that I owned a respectable collection of Dickens, DH Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh even before I became an English Literature undergraduate.
The drama queen
At school I fancied myself as a bit of thesp, taking A Level Theatre Studies and dreaming of auditioning for RADA. (Clearly, it never happened. If it had, I would be standing up there receiving awards instead of Kate Winslet instead of pushing a pram around Nappy Valley. Wouldn't I?). So here we have the collections of plays; from Arthur Miller to Ibsen and Strindberg (yes, I was a SERIOUS actress) to John Osborne and Noel Coward. So what happened to this adolescent passion? Well, let's just say that on arrival at University, I was so put off by a bunch of luvvy drama students doing 'impro, darling' at an audition that I never considered acting again..
The slacker student
At University, I acquired another sackload of books; Arden Shakespeares, with notes frantically scribbled in margins, reams of poetry from Chaucer to Byron to Wordsworth to Baudelaire; French novels and drama (part of my degree course was French Lit); and 20th century literature like Ulysses (the only book I ever managed to write an essay on without having read). I wrote my dissertation on Margaret Atwood, so have her entire works, all bursting with post-it note annotation. But by the end of my degree, I was English Litt-ed out. I didn't want to pick up another classic for years. I threw myself into journalism with relief, realising that academia was not for me. Thereafter follows a shameful collection. No, I am not talking about the fact that I own the entire works of Jilly Cooper (which actually I won't apologise for - she's brilliant); it's the forestful of books with pink covers and illustrations of women in stilettos that I regret....
The Chicklit years
Yes these were the chicklit years - a genre which I find deeply frustrating. Occasionally you will happen upon a chick-lit gem (Bridget Jones' diary, which arguably inspired the whole movement, is one of these) but most of it is utter dross, and so forgettable that I've quite often re-read one and not realised until half way through that I've read it before. I spend my entire time thinking, "I'm sure I could write something much better than this," but - even more deeply frustrating - I haven't actually managed to. But I kept buying the stuff in the hope that I would stumble upon the holy grail of light, fluffy, but ultimately satisfying romantic fiction.
After Littleboy 1 was born, I don't think I read a book for about six months. Well, apart from pregnancy and baby manuals - What to expect when you're expecting, The Rough Guide to Pregnancy, The Baby Whisperer (I refused to go near Gina Ford). The Doctor accused me of having what, on holidays abroad, we used to call 'guide book overload'. This is when you have several different guidebooks, all telling you completely different things. You spend your time agonising over the options; what restaurant to eat at, whether or not to bother with a particular place, and whether to do the walk to the beach that the Rough Guide says is marvellous, because you know from previous experience that it will be dreadful (there's a reason no-one else is there). Having too many baby books is a bit like this; I would forever be quoting 'BUT THE BOOK SAYS...' at The Doctor, as I tore my hair out with worry over something like burping.
Just prior to the birth of Littleboy 2, I had a window of relative peace and started reading again, and, with the help of the local library, began to enjoy contemporary literature. So my bookshelves from this brief period feature writers such as Jonathan Coe, Rose Tremain, Ian McEwan and assorted Booker winners. But this time was all too brief...
Listen with Mother..
Since the birth of Littleboy 2, serious reading has been nigh on impossible. I spend most of the week finishing the weekend papers in the snatched ten minutes before going to sleep. Yes, I know I could be reading instead of blogging, but if I do sit down to read a book with the children, they'll snatch it out of my hands within minutes and clamber all over me, and if I'm not careful they'll rip it to shreds. Once they've gone to bed, I'm too shattered to do much but eat and watch TV.
So, the books you're most likely to see me with these days are The Gruffalo's Child, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Tiger That Came to Tea. Or occasionally I'll revisit the chicklit years and binge on a bit of so-called Mummy Lit (The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy was good, but rather like chick lit, much of it is sloppily written froth).
So come on, I'd like to know what people are reading now. What authors get you going? What novel haven't you been able to put down recently? And more importantly, if you are a parent, how do you find time to read?