A Letter Of Gratitude, To The Stories That Changed My Life
It’s funny isn’t it? How a book can break your heart.
I’ve sat down to write this after having finished, for the second time, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I read it for the first time when I was a child, probably a year or two older than Will and Lyra are in the story.
I decided to read it again at the news that the inimitable Pullman would be releasing a new trilogy this year. I remembered how easily he swept me away, into a world of angels and daemons, of spectres and witches and armoured bears. Of worlds beyond worlds.
I’ve been re-reading a lot of books lately. Since moving to Italy I realised I’d not made much time for books in my life and I thought the best way to ease myself back into the habit was to re-read the books that have moved me and touched my soul, to relish again the pleasure of turning the page, the anticipation of getting back to the make-believe world in the ink and paper when the real world was distracting me with obligations.
Books have forever been my refuge from the real world. I remember that my father instilled a love of reading in me since I was a little boy.
It’s one of the few things our childhood had in common I think. He grew up as the youngest of his family, in a little village, on the small island of Pungudutivu, off the coast of Jaffna. His brothers and sisters were a fair bit older than him, so his days were spent playing with his goat and his dog — and of course, reading. His father was the headmaster of the local school, a respected man.
I imagine it was him who instilled a love of reading in him.
So I remember learning to read. One of the first books I read was about a dinosaur. I remember not being able to read the dinosaur’s name. I remember being forced to push through, how frustrating it was — but I also remember that once I had mastered it, I couldn’t be stopped.
I devoured them.
I remember my teacher telling me when I’d finished all the books for my year that I wasn’t allowed to read the Year 6 books because I was too young, and what would I read when I got to Year 6? I remember my parents being furious.
When we lived in Stanmore, I had my favourite reading corner. It was where two of the sofas met and behind them was a tall lamp with a beige lampshade. I would crawl through the little gateway formed between the arches of the sofas, lean against the wall, and read for hours, the pages lit by the lamp above, lost and alone in my own little world.
I didn’t have the easiest childhood. I realise now it was just early manifestations of my depression. I won’t spin you a tale of woe and misery, but suffice to say I was a lonely, weird kid growing up in a school where people didn’t really like lonely, weird kids.
I didn’t have too many friends, and outside of school I didn’t spend too much time with those friends.
I remember telling one of my cousins once that “books were my best friends”, and he laughed at me and told me I was sad. I felt a little ashamed then, but I also remember feeling fiercely sorry for him. He didn’t truly appreciate the wonder a story could instil in you.
Stories were why I read. I loved them even before I could read. I’d force my parents to read me the old Hindu stories over and over again.
My favourites were the tales of young Krishna. He was everything I wasn’t, he was charming and cheeky and adored. Most of the stories involved him and his cousin tricking the women who were churning the butter in the village so they could get into the cowshed and eat up that delicious butter.
When I was young, I read stories to escape the world, to escape the fact that I felt lonely and sad a lot, and that I felt that I was weak and scared.
Reading about brave young boys and girls, taking up arms against the forces of evil, making hard choices and sacrifices in the face of impossible odds — they made me feel braver. They filled the world with an excitement that mine was lacking.
But I realise now, older and wiser as I am, that these books weren’t just about escape. They taught me so many things.
They taught me about the importance of compassion and friendship. How we should value the truth and integrity, even if they were in stories that were flights of fancy. They taught me that being good and kind and righteous was important, something worth struggling for.
They taught me how to be alone with myself and how to be ok with that. They taught me about love and passion, and the darker corners of the human soul.
Most importantly they taught me about hope.
They taught me how a glimmer of light in the endless darkness can offer solace, that it is enough for us. They taught me what it means to be strong; that it isn’t about brawn or power, but about character and will.
These stories of an imagined universe told me how to appreciate what I had in the real world. My parents forged my moral compass, they gave me the raw materials, but it was books and stories that shaped and finely honed it. They were the ones that shamed me when I acted wrongly.
I think that humanity depends on stories.
Since primal times, we have gathered together to tell stories around the fire, sharing food and company. They have been passed from generation to generation and forged identities and histories.
They teach us how to see the world, they show us life through the eyes of others and through that we learn compassion and kindness.
Through the dignity of these fictional characters we learn how to suffer the whims and capriciousness of the world with grace and charm.
They tell lonely little boys that the world can be a magical and wonderful place, that the sadness will come and go and come again like the seasons, and that it is no use mourning this, but instead, that they should embrace the tides of the world, because in the end, everything will be OK.
One way or another, life will find a way to be OK.
So I want to offer my thanks.
To Brian Jacques,
To Eoin Colfer, and J.K. Rowling
To Garth Nix, and Anthony Horowitz
To Ursula Le Guin and Anne Rice
To Raymond E. Feist and Stephen King, and Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan and Darren Shan
To Philip Pullman and Roald Dahl and Conn Iggulden, and Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman,
And to so many countless others, whose names and books and stories I may have forgotten, but the effect they’ve had on me I never will.
Thank you, for writing me the best friends a boy could ask for when the world was unwilling to.
Thank you for shining a light in the dark times, and giving warmth and comfort in the good times.
Thank you for making me laugh and smile and cry in the quiet of the night, for breaking my heart a thousand times and for the times you’ll break them again and again.
I hope one day to be a writer who can do the same, to one day be a man whose stories can help make the life of one lonely little boy or girl a little brighter.
And if that is something that I ever manage to do,
It will be thanks to you.