I do not come from a family of readers. The house where I grew up was temporary home to textbooks that would find their way out the door to other relatives once they had been handed down from sibling to sibling. The big breakthrough was when a travelling salesman persuaded my mother, who persuaded my father that buying a set of encyclopaedias was a vital investment in our education. The set came with a ten-volume "Bookshelf for Children" bonus, and those volumes (encyclopaedias too) became my constant companions, my gateway to different worlds and ideas.
I was reading by the time I was three, which posed some difficulty in kindergarten as the teacher had to find some way to occupy me while the class learned their ABCs. I remember sitting on a small bench just slightly outside the class itself, dandling her toddler on my knees and singing to him. I became the easiest person to get presents for; all I wanted was books. Reading was my greatest pleasure and to me, writers were the most magical people.
This memory was invoked by two things. Christopher Mendes of the Reader's Bookshop began one of his new-book notices with this line: "There's a rumour that people out there are still buying books." The other trigger was the arrival of a new cricket quarterly, The Nightwatchman in the mail. It is a Wisden production and some months ago I had been asked to contribute to its first edition. The brief was a dream: to write at length about something that could just be tangentially about cricket.
It is available as an e-book, but the printed version really bowled me over and though it has only been a few days since I got it, I have stayed up every night soaking in the variety of essays, which you don't even have to like cricket to enjoy.
It was the managing editor, Matt Thacker, whose words reminded me of times past.
"Writing will of course endure, but it needs nurturing so that the next generation understands that there is a whole host of interesting things to read beyond a tweet and a blog," he said, remarking on how much good and bad writing is readily available online.
"While technology and the internet have changed the world and the way we view it, it is our belief that the written word, particularly long-form writing, still has its place."
He also invoked something which might be scoffed at by today's paperless skimmers of text, but it was this invocation, which harked back to Christopher's rumour, that set me nostalgically adrift.
Talking about the love for paper, Thacker wrote, "It's the materiality, the physical connection, the smell, the positioning on — and population of — the bookshelf, the passing down the family line, the inscriptions, the annotations, the knowledge of ownership."
Belonging to that community of people who like reading, holding books, turning pages, inhaling the smell and finding joy in that solitary engagement, has rendered me an outsider in many ways since childhood. I do not come from a family of readers.
With the world reading everything online nowadays, and considering length by number of characters, not words, reading off a printed page is even more of an alienating habit. Fortunately, I've had so much time to inhabit that role it doesn't bring me any awkwardness at all — which brings me a little closer to what I had really meant to write about in this column that took off on its own jaunt.
The awkwardness of illiteracy was where I meant to go and instead I've been going on about the awkwardness of literacy (though it isn't so much literacy as it is bookishness).
Not being able to read can be so alienating and awkward for children in school. Standing up in a class, and fumbling over words could never be easy for any child. As they get older, it becomes less and less cool. Our young men, I think, have had the most difficulty with this and I suspect it is a major reason why they turn away from books (and school).
It is why I think they embrace lifestyles that do not require them to show off their smarts through the capacity to read and write. They have to remove themselves as far as they can from any environment which either requires that kind of knowledge, or empowers that kind of learning. Maybe that is why gangs become such comfortable zones to inhabit. Can you imagine what would happen to egos if you had to pass a reading test to become a member? No matter what piece you're packing, you could never shine too brightly if people hear you struggling to read.
In the desperation to save our youth from discarding their lives so recklessly, all manner of remedies have been proffered; but I genuinely believe that any programme that does not expend a substantial amount of energy and focus on making our youth literate, will not reach anywhere sustainable.
The harder it is for them to read, the more likely they are to turn away from the life of the mind. There is more to this and I would dearly like to come back to it.