THE BLOG

You Are What You Read?

14/06/2013 09:59 BST | Updated 13/08/2013 10:12 BST
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Reading is, and always has been, absolutely integral to my life. Both my parents were librarians, and books were everywhere at home. English was my favourite subject at school - what a doss, you just read a book and then wrote about it - and, inevitably, I ended up going on to read English at university. That turned out to be harder work than I thought - translating Beowulf from the original Anglo-Saxon, anyone? But I still felt enormously privileged that going to the library constituted a day at work.

And I can measure my life in the books I've read. As a small child there were classic picture books by the likes of Janet and Alan Ahlberg, Quentin Blake and Jill Murphy - books which I now enjoy reading to my own small daughter. As I got a little older I discovered the delights of Enid Blyton and the adventures of the Wishing Chair, the Folk of the Faraway Tree and, of course, the Famous Five. By 9 or 10 I was gobbling up the classic 'girl's' fiction such as Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and What Katy Did. For at least a year, inspired by Malory Towers and The Chalet School, and entirely unbeknownst to my parents, I pretended continuously that I was at boarding school.

I was a voracious reader as well, and my parents struggled to keep me supplied with sufficient books. Then in my first year at secondary school my mum had a moment of inspiration and gave me The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie. I loved it, a lifelong passion for Golden Age detective fiction was born, and, happily, Mrs Christie had written enough to keep me going for quite some time.

By my mid teens I was obsessed with the great Victorian novelists; with my long black skirts and long blonde hair I floated around, a novel by Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot never far away, waiting for Mr Rochester to come and take me away from my happy but humdrum life in a Liverpool suburb.

A-levels brought my first shock - a book I didn't like. I am completely addicted to narrative, and just couldn't grasp free-form modernism at all, which was unfortunate given that The Dubliners by James Joyce was one of our set texts . However, by way of compensation, I really 'got' Shakespeare for the first time.

At university, reading was no longer a completely pure pleasure. The Oxford English Language and Literature course takes you on a three-year, whistle-stop tour which covers every period of English literature from Anglo-Saxon to late 20th century, as well as an introduction to critical theory and the history of the English language. Although I was deeply interested in the majority of what we studied, when you have one week to cover Dickens, or TS Eliot, you can't exactly sink luxuriantly back and enjoy it. I'd always been the fastest reader I knew, and, my God, I now needed to be.

When I graduated, I started the NHS Management Training Scheme, and suddenly my only compulsory reading was the latest Government White Paper or a management text book. Yawn. Once again I could read entirely for pleasure and through choice.

I discovered that after a day managing medical secretaries and waiting lists in a general hospital in the West Midlands, with a three-hour round commute, my passion for the classics was rather muted. I began to choose feel-good fiction which would lift my mood and which didn't require my battered brain cells to over-exert themselves. I inhaled novels by authors such as Jane Green, Katie Fforde, Elizabeth Noble, Adele Parks, Lisa Jewell, Jennifer Weiner- writers whose work was vibrant and engaging and which I could really relate to as I tried to carve out an adult life for myself.

Work by these authors does not generally appear on the English Lit syllabus; they are not part of 'The Canon', and there is a quite horrendous degree of literary snobbishness around the so-called 'chick-lit' genre. I don't care. I read for the same reason I always have - because I love to be transported to another world - and this is what these books and writers invariably do.

I mix it up a bit - I still adore detective fiction, there's a good sprinkling of Nancy Mitford or Barbara Pym or Carol Ann Duffy or Jane Austen or Ian McEwan. I still think Middlemarch is the greatest and most perfect novel ever written in the English language. But I'm utterly unapologetic about my less literary choices of literature, and now I've written my own novel, Two for Joy, I would be extremely proud if it brought as much joy to readers as my favourite contemporary commercial women's fiction writers have brought to me.