It was all so easy back then, when the days were long and there was no school for weeks on end. Back in the days when waking up was the hardest thing to do and breakfast became lunch became dinner, reading for pleasure was an integral part of my schedule – in the way tearing out my hair during Functional Skills English is now. I have not relented, folks. Even if I can only manage a paltry ten minutes before unconsciousness takes me, I have continued on like a trooper.
I do have a confession to make. It’s a small confession in the grand scheme of things. It’s not like I’ve relaxed border controls and blamed a civil servant; it’s not like I’ve fractured the education system by diversifying types of schools so that the aspirational classes don’t have to mix with the great unwashed; it’s not like I’ve broken the economy. No, people. I have become an electronic reader – a Kindle convert, if you like.
It was the iPad what did it – the Kindle App is free and the books ridiculously cheap. You may be looking at your screen in disgust, but we are in the middle of a harsh economic climate and belt-tightening is everyone’s responsibility. So, it is with a heavy heart that I can say that modernity finally defeated me. I’ve been reading to the glow of my Kindle guiltily, swiping pages in a somewhat furtive manner lest one of my university professors appears in my bedroom with a wagging finger and a disappointed expression.
On the upside, I have discovered that you can sample books for free from Amazon. This has led to hours of indecisive fun, downloading books I may never have bought had they been made of trees. The range of titles I have experimented with is startling: ‘The Auschwitz Violin’ by Maria Angels Anglada (in translation, pared back, music-rich writing), ‘Bleakly Hall’ by Elaine di Rollo (a little frivolous for my liking), ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern (made me feel like magic was real), ‘The Hangman’s Daughter’ by Oliver Potzsch (in translation, when the sample ended I felt wrenched back to the 21st century in a most disconcerting manner).
But it is the strange and wonderful ‘Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum’ by Mark Stevens that made me download the whole book, for the total cost of zero pounds and zero pence. I did not pay a single penny for it; I have been absolutely fascinated. Non-fiction is at its best for me when it is telling the story of people; Mark Stevens relates the real-life dramas and circumstances behind the first inmates of Broadmoor. From the artist Richard Dadd, known for his fairy art, to the delusional murderess Christiana Edmunds, we learn about the backgrounds and life journeys that brought the criminally insane inside the walls of the one of the most famous British institutions. The book is a labour of love; Mark Stevens is the professional archivist at the Berkshire Record Office in Reading and looks after the Broadmoor Hospital archive too. It is only available electronically.
Instutitions for the abandoned, ill and insane always provide an uncomfortable glimpse into worlds that reflect the parts of ourselves that are most disturbing. In Ransom Riggs’ beautifully designed ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ (I have seen a hard copy in Waterstone’s and it is lovely), the fantastic mixture of photography and prose is unsettling in the most delicious way. A little boy’s quest to unravel his grandfather’s stories of monsters at a home for children is part fantasy, part psychological exploration and it doesn’t disappoint. Written for young adults, the prose is undemanding – perfect for someone whose brain activity is sluggish and prone to switching off completely. I recommend you read it with the lights off, in the eerie glow of a Kindle. Or a candle.
The also-rans? I was tempted by the lush premise of ‘The House at Riverton’ by Kate Morton. I even went to a bookstore to pick up a copy, but found that Waterstone’s in Enfield clearly have a large Kate Morton fanbase and had run out of that particular book. With the spirit of experimenting coursing in my veins (no, not that kind of spirit, oh cynical ones), I decided to impulse buy another of her brand of historical fiction: ‘The Distant Hours’. I should be racing through it – on paper, it sounds wonderful, ramshackle castle with an unsolved history, creepy old ladies, a World War Two backstory – anyone who knows me knows that this book only requires the addition of some well placed zombies to make it perfect for me. But, reading Morton’s self-conscious and breathless description is like wading through fictional treacle. Oh and Adam Nevill’s ‘The Ritual’ – I downloaded on a Halloween inspired whim and found the most ridiculous final third of a book. Ever.
Anyway, it’s ten past eight on a Sunday night. Enough literary chat, X-Factor is on…