When I ask people when and how they learnt to read, they often struggle to remember. I learnt quite early, before I started school, and I remember it clearly. Dad used to read me Ladybird books, particularly the fairy stories - Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, Snow White. We didn't have many books, so he read them over and over again, and eventually, I learnt them off by heart. At first I just pretended I was reading them, but quite soon I didn't have to pretend - I knew how the words corresponded to the signs on the page. And that was it. I was off. I read everything I could get hold of, even the Children's Book of General Knowledge - a series of dusty blue volumes, old even then, which looked very dull but actually contained a treasure hoard.
I used to lie on the floor on my front, with my forehead against one of those armchairs with little wooden legs and the book underneath the chair; my mother, not unreasonably, used to tell me off and say that I'd ruin my eyes, but I didn't take any notice - though why on earth I found this position so comfortable, I cannot now imagine. Later, once I could join the junior school library and the school library, I happily steamed through as many books as I could borrow. The children's library in Ilkeston was separate to the adult library, but before
There was a shortish hiatus in my reading habit when I did an English degree - what with having to acquaint myself with the entirety of English literature from Beowulf to John Osborne, reading for pleasure took a back seat till I'd finished - when I happily read through all the James Bond novels as a way of cleansing my reading palate and getting back on track.
Since then I've continued to read a completely eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction. The way I read has changed, I think, since I started writing seriously, about fifteen years ago. Where once I entered the world of a novel fairly uncritically, judging it mostly on whether it was convincingly like real life or not, and according to some vague standard relating to whether it was 'well-written', now I read on two levels. On the one level, I still enter the world of the novel and suspend disbelief. But on the other, I notice plot holes, inconsistencies, characters who appear and disappear for no useful reason, too-obvious attempts to manipulate the reader's emotions. And I notice clever things too; the way an awkward time gap is handled, the way a writer cleverly withholds a bit of significant information, the way a fantasy world has been made to seem real.
Recently, I've noticed that something else has changed the way I read. It's an e-reader. I first had one because I thought it would be useful for travelling; just before that, I went on holiday for a couple of weeks with a limited amount of luggage space, because I was travelling by Ryanair. I pondered for hours as to how to make sure I'd got enough to read while I was away - and I didn't get it right: I had nothing left to read for the journey back. This made me very bad-tempered. (It wasn't the only thing. A Ryanair hamburger also had a great deal to answer for.) An e-reader - mine happened to be a Kindle - certainly avoids that problem.
But the change I've noticed isn't to do with that. It's to do with reading series. I first noticed it when I got
Hooked. Without a struggle. A few clicks, and the next book was there for the reading. No ordering from a library, no going out to a bookshop, no waiting for an online order to arrive. Just pure, uninterrupted reading pleasure.
Just before Christmas, I was out of detective novels to read. I should say I read lots of other things beside detective novels, but there are times when only a detective novel will do. This was one of them. So I put out a request for recommendations on Facebook. As most of my Facebook friends are writers, this yielded splendid results. To start, I downloaded the first Amelia Peabody mystery, by Elizabeth Peters (recommended by Joan Lennon), and the first Charlie Resnick novel, by John Harvey (recommended by Tony Bradman, among others).
The Amelia Peabody books are delightful. Amelia is a nineteenth century Egyptologist, who, together with her redoubtable husband Emerson, encounters and defeats an astonishing number of adversaries in an array of pyramids, souks and tombs. They're funny and very entertaining: they can be read separately, but they build if you read them in sequence.
So do the Resnick novels. Charlie Resnick is a police inspector of Polish origin, who lives in Nottingham. He
is scruffy, he's divorced, he makes the most amazing sandwiches and lives off little else, he's tall but overweight, he's kind and intuitive. So he's a great character. I read the first book and quite enjoyed it but wasn't totally hooked. Then, after reading a few other things in between, I downloaded the second book. This time, I was hooked, and now I've read all eleven of them.
And it's just really struck me that, reading them this way, one straight after the other, you get a much better sense of the overall story arc, beyond the story arc of each individual book. At he same time as he's creating a complex plot for each novel, Harvey is developing the stories, not just of Charlie, but of the other characters too. He's showing how what happens in one life impacts on the other lives, not just immediately, but over time. And he's showing what it is to live in a city, how the city's changing, how life for all of us is changing in the 21st century. Really, he's writing one enormous work, which has within it a series of linked stories - in a way that, for instance, wonderful as she was, Agatha Christie didn't really do: Miss Marple doesn't change a lot from one book to the next, and nor does her world.
And it's reading the series on a Kindle that's made it easier for me to see that. Of course, the result would have been the same if I'd bought the whole series as print books and read them one straight after another; but that's something I've never done. The closest would have been to buy a compilation of four Miss Marples, or four Hercule Poirots. With a Kindle, the books are cheaper, and downloading them is instant - it's those two factors that alter the reading experience.
It's also made me think differently about how to plan a series of books for children. But that's another story.