My love of books came from my grandfather. When I was young, he’d take me to the library. When he was old, I’d meet the courier who delivered his monthly supply of library books. In those later years, each delivery marked the start of an intense period of reading. With the help of a loupe and a bright lamp he’d go through the books like a chain smoker – one right after the other, pausing only to sleep or use the bathroom. My grandfather – a man who practiced moderation in all other things – binged on those books. Within three days the books would be finished and the bag would slump by the door until the courier returned at the end of the month.
My grandfather liked poetry, history, and politics. He hated the celebrity biographies the librarians were so fond of including and tolerated only a handful of novelists. He also bemoaned the fact that many of his favourites didn’t come in large print. I often wish he’d lived to see Kindles – I imagine they would have revolutionised his reading.
Although I’m as obsessed with books as he was, it’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate his literary tastes. I’ve always been more interested in fiction, but while struggling with a mystery illness this year I started and abandoned more great novels than I care to admit. I lacked the attention span for complex plots and I had no compassion for the characters. In fact, the only work of fiction I finished this year was Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing – a short, powerful novel with characters so real they practically charge off the page and punch you in the guts.
Unwilling to give up reading altogether, I turned to non-fiction. The absence of adjectives was succour and real stories, plainly but beautifully written, were a balm. Just as my grandfather had done, I sat in an armchair and sucked the marrow from those books. And just as they did for my grandfather, the books brought the world to me at a time when I was unable to leave the house.
Michelle Dicinoski’s Ghost Wife, Scott Stossel’s My Age Of Anxiety, Toni Bernhard’s How To Be Sick, Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, David Van Reybrouck’s Congo, Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, and The Best American Non-Required Reading 2014 are just some of the books I enjoyed this year. I also revisited 84 Charing Cross Rd and I’m currently reading Ann Patchett’s This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and Hugh Mackay’s The Art Of Belonging.
I’m optimistic that as my health improves I’ll find a balance between fiction and non-fiction. I might even return to some of the novels I cast aside when I was unwell. But for now, if my year was a book, the title would be The Education of Siobhan O’Dwyer and the central character would be a fiery academic with a dodgy thyroid and a kickass grandfather.