Being Nancy Drew and other literary obsessions

When I was about ten, I spent most of my waking hours fantasizing about being Nancy Drew, girl detective.  She not only had a proper, grown-up boyfriend and a CAR (unimaginable!) but also managed to escape from an almost infinite succession of hair-raising situations (sabotaged skis, runaway cars, being locked in a room with a poisonous spider) whilst remaining impossibly cool and, to my youthful eyes, incredibly glamorous.  I borrowed book after book from the library before a slightly more sophisticated friend lent me The Nancy Drew Files: an extension of the original series where the perils were even grittier and the boys even sexier.  Quite simply, I was Nancy Drew, as I walked around town in an imaginary leather jacket just like the one she wore in the books, with imaginary glossy hair as opposed to my pre-pubescent rat-tails, keeping an eye out for suspicious characters.

So far, so standard as far as childhood obsessions go.  The next one was slightly weirder however, coming as it did in the form of a warrior squirrel (please stay with me here!)  I became infatuated with Brian Jacques’ Redwall saga, a long series of books set in a world of animals who were almost constantly at war with each other and that involved a little more death and bloodshed than you might expect.  Lady Amber, the squirrel in question, was ballsy, outspoken and an utterly formidable fighter, and I wanted to be her more than anything, as she moved effortlessly through the forest, an untouchable and unseen assassin, taking out villainous rats with her slingshot and outfighting every male warrior around her.  With hindsight though perhaps it wasn’t so strange; in spite of – or maybe because of – my reasonable sedate and mundane lifestyle, in my head I’ve always been the action girl.  I’ve never, ever wanted to be the princess: I am Lara Croft, I am Ripley, I am Nancy Drew, girl detective.

Adulthood came, however, and the idea of living vicariously through various spirited literary characters disappeared.  Thank goodness, you might say – but in fact I know a number of people who still have these obsessions even now.  And actually, there’s a part of me that’s a bit sorry I no longer have daydreams in which I’m running across a mist-smothered moor shrieking “Heathcliff”.  Perhaps I’m too busy obsessing about real life to imagine existing as a fantastical figure any more, which would be pretty sad; or maybe I just haven’t yet found that perfect character who fulfils a missing part of my adult life.  Either way, there are definitely times when being someone else, if only in your own mind, can be immensely liberating and an awful lot of fun, and it’s something I should probably learn to do again.  So it seems there’s nothing for it but to return to the girl who never let my pre-adolescent self down.  Tomorrow morning as I set off for work, I’ll lower the (imaginary) soft-top on my convertible Skoda Fabia and cruise down the A2, ready to take on the world as Nancy Drew, girl detective.

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Milestones

I like to think of life as a compilation of tiny moments, an almost infinite multitude of conversations, daydreams, sights, sounds and feelings that combine to make our existence unique.  Every so often, among the mundane and the everyday, something comes along that will stand out in the memory or maybe give us a little nudge onto a slightly different path.  These markers could be anything and everyone has their own; as this is a book blog of course I am going to be talking about the reading experiences that have become my milestones.  There are books that I can still recall clearly years later, purely because they were somehow significant to my life at the time and I remember exactly where I was, literally and metaphorically, when they made their way into my hands.  It would be an exaggeration to say that a book has ever changed my life – I’ve come across a number of people who feel that’s happened for them, but for me it’s always been a subtle influence rather than a revelation.

As a child I was excessively anxious about trying anything new in any area of my life, including books.  I find it strange to think back on that nervousness now when as an adult I’m so keen to discover new things that I barely return to anything – but in my childhood I was (like many children I imagine) incredibly stubborn in my resolve to cling to the familiar.  I stuck to reading series of books by authors that continually re-trod old ground: Enid Blyton’s seemingly never ending body of work was a particular favourite.  Eventually my parents, frustrated by my refusal to venture into new territory, bought me “Mossflower” by Brian Jacques.  I’d never read anything like it before, and I have a very vivid memory of planning to read a couple of chapters before declaring I didn’t like it so I’d be allowed to return to my beloved Famous Five!  As it turned out, no such manipulation of my poor parents was required, as I fell in love with it as I’d almost never fallen in love with anything before.  I still have the large collection of his books that I ended up amassing, and I look on “Mossflower” as the book that switched off my fear of the unknown.  From then on I never looked back, and I think that’s where my desire to be as widely read as possible first started.

Despite being an avid reader by the time I reached secondary school, I remember finding the set texts in the early years pretty uninspiring (I loathed “Flambards” and “Moonfleet” with a passion!) yet I went on to study English literature all the way through university.  The book that I think made me want to do that?  “Middlemarch” – one of my mum’s favourite books and still one of mine today.  I remember sitting in my bedroom squeezed into the space between the bed and the window, sun pouring in, and thinking that I had never come across anything this complex or elegantly written before.  It was the first of many discoveries that led to some amazing years spent studying literature, a choice of subject I loved and have never regretted.

Life, however, is invariably full of ruts and the milestone book that shook me out of another one was “The Secret History”.  I came across it when I first started working in the book trade in my early twenties, and discovered pretty quickly that this was the book my new colleagues raved about with complete unanimity.  Up until that point I’d been primarily a classics sort of girl and contemporary fiction hadn’t held much appeal for me.  Then Donna Tartt’s phenomenal novel blew my mind.  I carried it around with me literally everywhere for two days, reading in the oddest places whenever I got a few minutes, and I will always hold it up as being the book that turned me onto modern fiction writing.

I would love to know if there are any books that you think of as being milestones in your life.  Which book made you fall in love with reading?  Is there a book that completely changed the way you thought about something?  As always I would love you to share your thoughts here on Girl, Reading!