Most authors will tell you that their love of books blossomed during childhood. In my case, my most vivid memories involve snuggling up to read with my mother. She’d been left severely disabled by a car crash two years before I was born; both legs had been shattered from the pelvis down and, although surgery had been attempted, in the early 1970s the results were far from miraculous.
At the time, I never thought about the fact that she couldn’t line up for the mums’ race on sports day, or run alongside as I made my first, tentative attempts to ride a bike. This was partly because I was never happier than when reading – and we’d do that for hours, spending endless days in the garden, where I couldn’t get enough of The Hungry Caterpillar, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, or a burgeoning collection of Mr Men books.
Once I’d exhausted those, it became apparent that my insatiable appetite for books could get expensive. Fortunately, our local library was an early adopter of ramped access for wheelchair users. On a practical level, this was a clear boon, but it also cemented the important idea that this was a place where everyone was welcome. In this modest, architecturally uninspiring building, I’d lose myself in those shelves, scouring them for my next read or six. I’ve been prompted to think about this, and the role of other libraries, by the fact that it is currently Libraries Week here in the UK .
While that small library served me well over the years, in my mid-teens, I made a rather special discovery. The Picton Reading Room in my home city of Liverpool was a grand, late-nineteenth century circular library, with a canvas of shelves and projecting book cases on its galleried walls, the upper levels of which were reached by iron spiral stair cases. I first visited before anyone had heard of Harry Potter, but it could have been straight out of Hogwarts. I fell instantly in love with it.
Over the next few years, when exam time came around, I’d take the bus into the city centre every morning and cocoon myself at a desk to study. I loved the smell of the place, of old pages and creaky leather, and the way whispers would echo from the domed ceiling. I’d stay there all day among the silent ebb and flow of visitors and, when home time came, would borrow a book to read on the bus - my reward for a hard day at ‘the office’.
Now I’m an adult, with three children of my own, the library I visit regularly is more like the first one I ever went to. There are no ornate staircases or Corinthian columns; it’s just a small, unassuming building with a stark exterior and frayed carpet tiles. But, when I step through the doors with my sons, it is filled with the greatest of all riches: words.