Jewishness is passed down the generations by women. In my family, while scant attention was paid to our Jewish roots, another gift was handed from grandmother, to mother, to daughter in my family. It was a love of reading.
My grandmother was a school librarian and her passion for books accompanied her throughout her life and was imprinted on my own. As a child, I would sometimes visit her where she worked. Surrounded by books, I would sit behind her desk and breathe in the smell of books or listen as she read to the children. I wondered if I would ever be able to read all the stories around me.
Later, when I was a teenager she introduced me to Looking for Alibrandi, I Came Back to Show You I Could Fly and Bridge to Terabithia. Through these and others, I experienced deep and new emotions in the security of my own bedroom; my life was happy and easy, but in my imagination, I gained a world of new experiences. I came to better understand the people who I lived alongside and on the opposite side of the globe.
My mother also shared her love of reading with me, and her favourite childhood books became my own. She introduced me to the world of Enid Blyton, the Faraway Tree, The Naughtiest Girl and the Wishing Chair series. Then there was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird and Madame Bovary, followed in later years by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Great Gatsby.
At a time when travel was less accessible than it is now, and when Mum had only ever been on a plane for her honeymoon, books provided a vision of the world outside Ballarat, the regional town where she had always lived. It was a vision she wanted her children to see – of different places, different ways of living and different ways of thinking.
It was clear my grandmother and mother believed in the value of reading that Jacqueline Kennedy spoke of when she said:
“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.”
Scientist Carl Sagan believed that reading to children did not only benefit the individual, but also to those around them.
“One of the greatest gifts adults can give — to their offspring and to their society — is to read to children.”
In my life, the gift of reading has done that and more. It has also given me comfort when I was lonely or suffered from a general case of teenage angst, and provided a distraction when I was trying to cope with conflict or disappointment at work, at home or in relationships. It has entertained me, consoled me, cushioned me and inspired me.
Writer W Somerset Maugham encapsulated the value of the gift of reading when he said:
“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all miseries of life.”
My relationship with reading, my mother and grandmother evolved when I eventually discovered writers myself and brought their books home. There was Milan Kundera, Lionel Shriver and Monica Ali. Some books my mother and grandmother liked, some they didn’t.
As my grandmother aged, books continued to connect us; she discovered and introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut and I continue to reread some of her favourite books, including Slaughterhouse 5 and The Cat’s Cradle.
We didn’t always agree – she loved The Reader, while I did not, and one of my favourite books is We Need to Talk About Kevin, but she refused to believe that such a child as the narrator’s son could exist. Books were a constant source of conversation, debate and shared understanding. In her final years, we both discovered the writing of Alain de Botton, and it is with a bittersweet memory of her that I will see him talk in Melbourne in coming weeks.
My mother and I continue the tradition that my grandmother began, now sharing it with my two sisters-in-law. We swap books, compare notes and are our own unofficial book club.
Now, it is my turn to share our love of books with my children. The books of childhood that I read them take me back to a time when anything was possible – a man called Moonface, a secret garden and a magical wardrobe through which existed a whole new world.
As much as my children love to swipe through the games and pictures on my iPhone, they also love to listen to me read the books that I remember reading. The Diggingest Dog, A Fly Went By, Winnie the Poohand The Velveteen Rabbit are all as engaging as they always were, while we are all experiencing Mem Fox, Alison Lester and Julia Donaldson anew.
So, on Mother’s Day, I will thank my mother and grandmother for giving me one of the best gift I could have received, one that brings me joy every day of my life: a love of reading.