I really think there’s something very special about this contribution to My Favourite Book from my ‘real life’ friend, Gwyneth Peaty. I got a few tears in my eyes reading it. Here’s what you should all know about Gwyneth before reading it: she’s just about the kindest person I’ve ever met. Of course, I will say that about all of my friends, but that doesn’t diminish what I said about her. Gwyneth is one of those people who genuinely cares about what she does, other people and animals. Speaking of animals, check out her adorable bunny, Lenny. She’s also the person who, along with her sisters, took care of Kobi when I was away in Israel, so Kobi is a huge fan too.
But I should probably give her a more professional introduction. Gwyneth is currently a lecturer in Internet Studies at Curtin University, and like me, an Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia. She is super smart, so I suggest following her blog and checking out what she’s written. She completed her PhD on the grotesque in pop culture at The University of Western Australia and her current research focuses on monstrosity, gender, ontology and the Gothic in visual media. Did I mention she’s also a great friend? Yep, that too. Thank you Gwyneth, for this lovely post!
My favourite book is not the best book ever written. It is not the cleverest, nor the most profound. It is not a work of great literary majesty or philosophical renown. It is, however, the most important book I’ve ever read.
My favourite book is my first book. The first full length text I read all the way through, all by myself. In fact, it is the very book I was reading when I realised I could read. Even after many years, the memory is so clear. It still gives me chills, makes the skin stretched across my skull prickle and fizz, to think of that moment.
I can hear my mother clanking around in the kitchen. I can feel the dry pages between my fingers. Curled up in one of our old mismatched armchairs (always with terrible posture, legs and arms at all angles), the big hardback was balanced awkwardly on my lap. I sat like this most days, after I stopped going to school. That place never agreed with me. It doesn’t agree with many children, especially the quiet ones. Teachers having failed, my parents took on the task of helping me to understand letters, words, and sentences. In their infinite wisdom, they did a clever thing: they gave me comics.
I was holding a comic book that day. It was one I had struggled through previously, slowly spelling out the words one by one. Before that, my father had read it to me, doing funny voices for all the different characters, as he always did.
This day was different, though. At some unconscious juncture, I had stopped sounding the letters and words aloud to myself. I was no longer sliding my finger carefully along under each line of dialogue. The mechanics of the process had disappeared and, as if by magic, I was hearing the words in my mind, running smoothly together, just as they should. The sheer elation of this new awareness is difficult to describe, although I’m sure others have had similar experiences. No doubt there are moments of such bright clarity when mastering any foreign language. I had to get up and inform someone. “I can read!” I exclaimed to my mother. “Yes of course, well done,” she replied politely. “No, I can REALLY read.”
Perhaps such events slide past with less excitement for others, but as someone who always takes a little longer to ‘get’ things, I treasure memories like this. They are markers of persistence rewarded. Plus, it meant I could finally have a direct connection with the characters I loved. Through them I could learn more. Professor Calculus taught me that it’s okay to be forgetful and clumsy and a bit weird. Captain Haddock taught me how to insult people creatively (if only in my mind) without resorting to swearing. Tintin taught me that travel and having adventures is awesome. Bianca Castafiore taught me that singing is not for everyone.
Some of you will know these characters, and therefore already know who created my favourite book. In some ways, the identity of the specific text is secondary to what I’m trying to express here; the profound sense of privilege and pleasure that I associate with my favourite book, and with the practice of reading in general. It is my sincere hope that everyone, no matter their age or interests, has the opportunity to share this sensation during their lifetime. Everyone deserves to.
The book went back to our local library, but I never forgot. Years later, after I’d grown older and we’d moved to another suburb, the library had a sale of old unwanted stock. My mother and I went to hunt for bargains. And what do you think? There was my book. The very first I ever read. All battered and scribbled on, yellowed and taped up to hold in the loose pages, but still whole nonetheless. There was only one possible course of action. My favourite book lives at my house now.