Fifty years ago: 1958 (minus two years old)
There were no books in the house in which I was born. Probably a bible. Possibly a dictionary. God alone knows how they produced a reader, let alone a writer. I never saw either of my parents pick up a work of fiction other than to read a story to one of the children.
Forty years ago: 1968 (eight years old)
I used to cycle down to the local library every Saturday morning. I was regularly first in the queue. The librarian, whom I remember as the big-bosomed, twin-set and pearls variety of librarian who smelled of eau de cologne, was a bit of a tartar (and probably had nowhere near as pneumatic a bosom as my memory has ascribed to her) who would only let me take out books from the pitiful children's section though I could wander freely throughout the place as long as I didn't get under anyone's feet. Her husband was a local councillor or something of that ilk and the woman, as far as I could see, pretty much looked down her nose at everyone.
On one occasion I took out a book in the morning and returned it in the afternoon, much to her annoyance. Did I not know the library had rules? It was then I was issued the extra tickets, having only been able to get one book at a time up until then, and told never to try that trick again.
As for what I read? Pretty much everything, but the only book I can remember was Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It had a pink cover with fine polka-dots all over it. For all that, I don't remember being especially interested in books as a child. The library was a place to go, an adventure away from family life, an excuse to get out of the house.
Thirty years ago: 1978 (eighteen years old)
There's an old Woody Allen joke:
I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.
When I was in my late teens I read – for me – voraciously but I was more interested in chalking up books read that in the subtleties of what I was reading. And I only read books by Nobel Prize winners (or Hugo or Nebula Award winners for sci-fi); I can't have thought much of the Pulitzer I guess. I recently reread Nabokov's Transparent Things and, apart from the vaguest recollection of the hero's father dying, nothing had stuck, not a sausage, not even the smell of sausages cooking in next door's kitchen. This time round I discovered an intricate, layered book that deserves to be studied as opposed to simply being read.
It is an age thing, I'm sure, but there was no time when I was eighteen for close reading. It didn't matter that I didn't get what I was skimming over. Apart from the fact that I now own a faded and foxed copy of the little book, purchasing it was a total waste of my time. I doubt the reading of it could even have counted as relaxation at the time.
Twenty years ago: 1988 (twenty-eight years old)
Is there such a thing as reader's block? If there is, I've suffered from it several times in my life and this was one of them. My life was full of wives and kids and work and responsibilities. I had no time for anything. The only things I read were comics. I had started collecting them as a hobby, something that involved as little brain activity as possible and satisfied my innate desire to order things.
A year later the Vertigo line premiered with the ground-breaking Sandman series but in 1988 I was still buying whatever Marvel or DC titles appealed to me at the time. I had no particular loyalty to either company and they've both gone through highs and lows. I've never tired reading Batman and the X-Men but I would always veer towards those with not only great art – sometimes I would buy a comic purely for the cover art – but great stories. My daughter recently discovered Neil Gaiman the novelist and I made a point of presenting her with a trade paperback of Sandman so she could see Neil Gaiman the comic book writer.
Ten years ago: 1998 (thirty-eight years old)
I first discovered Beckett when I was nineteen. I bought Murphy and his collected shorter plays and didn't get them. By the time I was in my late thirties I was mentally ready to give him another go.
I have never read anything that comes close to Beckett's prose trilogy made up of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable and I doubt I ever will. Reading them was hard work especially digging my way out of the morass of language that is The Unnameable. I cannot imagine the effort it must have taken him to write the three of them, which he did, one after the other, apart from a break of a couple of months during which he rattled off a wee play called Waiting for Godot.
Should reading be such hard work? Not all of it, no, but not everything in life is easy and it's wrong to present it as such. I saw a TV dramatisation about the Holocaust and I remember thinking at the time, how the hell have they managed to sugar-coat this? And they had. Somehow they had.
There is no sugar-coating anywhere in Beckett. There is no meat on the bones either. Since then I have bought, read, watched and listened to everything he has written and then I started to study him. Some people might regard me as an expert but I'm nothing near that, just a fan, nothing more than a fan.
Today: 2008 (forty-eight years old)
I joined Goodreads a few weeks back. For selfish reasons, to use the site to promote my writing once I get round to unleashing it on an unsuspecting public. I went through all the books on my shelves and wrote reviews of about a hundred of them, a decent enough cross-section, and then I started adding in the books I'm reading just now.
What got me was how little I could remember about so many of the books I own. I picked up The Last of the Just and I can go one step further than Woody on this one: it's about Russian Jews. And that's sad. So I've started rereading some of the books I bought when I was in my teens. They’ve all seen better days but then so have I.