Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
My Life in Books
by Penny Gotch
It’s a beautiful word, isn’t it? Five letters, one syllable, and a billion possibilities.
I love books. I was weaned on them. I cut my teeth on cloth and board ones at eighteen months, sitting in my crib in the peaceful morning hours before my mum woke up, turning the pages to look at the pictures because the words were beyond my reach.
Now I devour books, page after page, sentence after sentence, word after word.
Books have been everything and anything for me. They have been parent and tutor, friend and lover, my one constant companion since childhood.
When my autism diagnosis came along at seventeen and shook everything into place, it became clear that books are and always have been my enduring autistic obsession.
This is our story. This is my life in books.
# # #
My mum tells me that she and my dad used to take it in turns to read to my brother and me when I was between one and nine. This is undoubtedly true, but that’s not how I remember it.
I only remember my dad reading to us. My dad was a natural storyteller. He was always unafraid of looking silly in front of us, and that’s what made him so good.
We started with the Ahlbergs: “Each Peach Pear Plum”, “Bye Bye Baby” and “Peepo! “ were our favorites. My dad would put on the most ridiculous voices to make us giggle and say the wrong character names in “Each Peach Pear Plum” on purpose so we could shout at him.
As we got older, we moved onto different stories. We made nail soup and helped the dragon to save the Wibblington Express. We laughed at the fate of Sausage Nose and feared the Beast with A Thousand Teeth.
Eventually, we grew too old for bedtime stories and they trailed away. But as you can see, the memories last a lifetime. And not just for the children. To this day, after more than a decade, my dad can still recite “Each Peach Pear Plum” by heart. And he always gets it right.
# # #
Being read to as a child ignited a passion for books inside of me. I became a tiny volcano of bibliophilic potential, just waiting to erupt. Except that I couldn’t read for myself. Not yet. It’s a very strange feeling, wanting to read something and knowing that you can’t.
When my brother and I were children, my mum would keep all our toys and books in the cupboard under the stairs so they weren’t constantly underfoot. I remember sitting in that cupboard when I was perhaps five or six years old, with an Enid Blyton book in my hands. I couldn’t read it.
I remember which book it was, although the title escapes me. I remember the picture I was looking at: a fairy carriage being pulled by mice. I even remember reading it when I got older. But at that moment, I could not read those words, no matter how much I wanted to.
Oh how the times have changed.
# # #
I may not remember my mum reading me and my brother bedtime stories, but that’s not to say that I don’t remember her reading to us at all. When I think of my mum reading to us, it’s always summer, and my brother and I are on holiday from school. Sometimes, we’re sitting in the living room. Sometimes, we’re lounging in a tent in the back garden. Sometimes, my brother and I are playing Game Boys. Sometimes, we’re just listening. And my mum is reading.
With her, we did wonderful things. We fought Taxxon and Hork-Bajir Controllers with the Animorphs. We marvelled at the magic of Chrestomanci. We journeyed to the far north with Lyra and Pantalaimon.
When I’m travelling by train, I can often see into other people’s gardens if I look through the carriage windows. Sometimes, in the summer, if I see a camping tent, I’m taken back to those warm summer days and my mum’s voice weaving worlds of wonder. Sometimes, I cry.
# # #
My relationship with books hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Sometimes, things have gotten very ugly between us. In fact, one of the first autistic meltdowns I remember was over a book.
When I was in the reception class, a wee little mite just four years old, we were allowed to take books home with us. The idea was that we would pick one book on a Monday morning, take it home every night for a week, and get a new book the next Monday.
In practice, I finished my book after one or two nights and got bored, so I was allowed to change more frequently than that. It was Monday on the day I had my meltdown. Everybody was choosing new books, including me, and I knew which one I wanted: “The Rainbow Fish”.
I must admit that I wasn’t particularly invested in the story in this case. I wanted to look at the gorgeous artwork and stroke the Rainbow Fish’s shiny scales. I went to the book box. I looked for the book. It wasn’t there.
Somebody else had got to the book before me. And that meant I would have to wait an entire week until I could read it.
To say that I was not happy about this turn of events would be an understatement akin to saying that getting lemon juice on a paper cut is not nice. I cried and raged to the point that I scared my teacher. He was a fully-grown man: I was a four-year-old girl.
In the end, I fell asleep under a table and woke up just when my mum arrived to move me. I didn’t get “The Rainbow Fish” that day, but the child who had the book was made to bring it back early so I could have it later in the week. It was possible that my teacher sorted this out because he was scared that I would have another meltdown.
This tells us two things: one, books are serious business; and two, accidental blackmail is always the answer.
# # #
Once I’d learnt to read, books became as sirens to me. Wherever I was, I could hear their bewitching voices calling to me, begging me to come and open their covers and caress their pages. And more often than not, I would.
I remember being six years old and in Year Two at school. Everybody else would listen to our teacher and go and sit down on the carpet when told, but not me. I’d drift over to the book box and read book after book, even ones I’d outgrown months before. When everybody else stood back up to go to their tables and work, I’d stay right where I was, picking up books, reading them, lost in my own little world. I don’t remember ever getting disciplined for this behavior. If I did, it didn’t stick.
By the time I’d turned ten and reached Year Five, I’d grown out of my habit of ignoring my school work to read and developed a new one: refusing to go outside for break so I could read instead. Year Five was not a happy time for me. My teacher bullied me and I was often miserable. But the one good thing about my bullying teacher was that he ran a chess club and seldom showed up for the break. This gave me the perfect excuse to sit inside at lunchtimes and read books.
I don’t remember getting told off for doing this either, although I’m sure it was against the rules. I had no adult supervision. I could have been running amok and destroying the place and nobody would have known. Sometimes, I wonder what on earth my primary school thought it was doing with me.
# # #
I don’t remember ever being punished at school for being unable to leave books alone, but the same can’t be said when I was at home. Everything came to a crisis when I was about ten. By this point, even I have to admit that my reading had gotten out of hand.
Whenever I could, I read. When I was on the toilet, I read. When I was supposed to be showering, I read. When I was supposed to be asleep, I read. My mum told me many, many times not to read when I had other things I should be doing, but the message didn’t sink in.
That was when my dad stepped in. And his solution was radical. He took my books away.
Every. Single. One.
My dad emptied my book shelves. He put every single book I owned into a large box on the landing. And he forbade me from touching them for a week.
It was terrible. I could see my books lying there, calling out to me, begging to be read. But I have always had a good sense of right and wrong and a strong sense of duty and moral behavior, one of the positive aspects that autism has given me, and I did not break my punishment.
My dad has since admitted that he would have had to remove my books from my room anyway, as they were going to be redecorating it shortly and that using it as a punishment also made things easier for him. But whatever the reasons behind the punishment, it worked.
Well, for the most part, I still read on the toilet. But then so does my dad.
# # #
So where do books and I stand now? Well, I am pleased to tell you that our relationship goes from strength to strength. I can spend innumerable hours and far too much money in book shops. My habitats are Waterstones, WHSmith, and Foyles. In these places, I am at ease, full of wonder, full of joy. In these places, I am home.
I relish the time I spend reading. When I get a new book, I will settle myself down in a comfortable chair or wait until bedtime and then just read, read, read. Often, I marathon the entire thing in one sitting, particularly if I start reading it during the daytime.
If I start reading a new book at night, I can often be found at one, two, three o’clock in the morning still going strong. Sometimes, time defeats me and I have to put the book down because I’m physically too tired to continue. But most of the time, I win.
# # #
These are just a few of the memories I have that are connected with books, just a little taste of our experiences together. It would be impossible for me to tell you about all our adventures together, to explain exactly what books have done for me and what they mean to me.
This is far from the end of our story together. My life in books is nowhere near done. This is just the beginning. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Penny Gotch is an autistic writer of non-fiction, fiction and poetry. She lives in England, where she is studying Creative & Professional Writing. Her poetry has been featured in several magazines, including What the Dickens!. She is contactable through her Tumblr at pennygotch.tumblr.com.