If I close my eyes right now, I can still smell them. Three or four bookcases, full of books, all cheap wood-pulp paperbacks. The kind of paperback that when you pick it up, you wonder how something with so many pages could weigh so little. Coffee- and curry-stained books, purchased in airports all around the world. Many of them had familiar pricing stickers on them, still, in Kroner. But there were others. Some had a strange-looking L before the price. Others had an S with a line through it. Others again were bought in Singapore, Sydney, or Seoul. The books were all in English.
There were books about owls that weren’t at all about owls. Books about carpets that weren’t about carpets. Dean Koontz, P D James, Stephen King, Wilbur Smith. I used to line the books up just so — ensuring they were perfectly aligned with each other and the bookcase. They were stacked two deep and on top of each other. I never counted them, but there must have been hundreds.
My mother was a physiotherapist, and her clients were many and varied.
“She is the only physio that’s available,” the doctors would say. “Not because she is bad at her job. Quite the opposite. The bad ones don’t fix the patients — they just keep going until the money runs dry. No, she’s available because she actually helps people. After 16 weeks, they’re either healed and good to go, or they can’t be helped. Either way, she stops seeing them.”
One of those patients was a pilot. He lived in the next village over from us. Piloting is serious business, but the vast majority of the time, you sit and watch the gauges while the cruise control does the rest. So what do you do? Well, in the 80s and 90s, you flirted with the stewardesses or you read books.
As a kid wearing glasses, I was heartbroken the day I learned that you needed to have good un-corrected eyesight to be a pilot. I wore glasses, and my eyes were already below the minimum acceptable range. Day in, day out, the gentleman would be on instruments while cris-crossing the globe in a Boeing 767. You get a lot of reading time in, and I was envious of him. Imagine having a job where you got to read all day. Oh, and I guess planes are neat too.
In any case, they eventually had to move, and at some point, my mother mentioned to the pilot that she had a son who had a bit of an appetite for books.
“Well, if you want some, we have hundreds of the damn things,” he definitely didn’t say — for one thing, this was in Norway, so it’s likely he spoke Norwegian, but also, I wasn’t present for the conversation, so I’m literally just making shit up over here. “Would you want a couple?”
I can only surmise that my mother said “well, how about all of them?” because the next thing I knew, my dad hitched a trailer to our little Lada Riva and returned not long after with a mountain of books. I can’t remember if the bookcases were included or if we ended up doing an IKEA run, but long story short, before too long, our basement was lined with bookcases.
What is a poor 9-year-old Dutch boy who has only just started learning English to do next? Well. I read every single one of those hundreds of books. With a thesaurus on my left knee, the book on my right, and an English-Norwegian dictionary for the words that the thesaurus couldn’t clarify, I was surrounded by piles of ’em, at all times.
I was defusing the guns on Navarone as I was walking to school. I was enthralled by Ken Follett’s epic multi-generational stories on my lunch breaks. And in the afternoons I’d be deep in the filthy mind of Jean M Auel and her furry gang of cave-dwelling sex-fiends.
The books still had the price stickers on them, from far-flung places across the globe. I was only just starting ot learn the language, but I was going to figure it out, dammit. I was going to learn every word there was to know. It turns out, there’s a lot of words in English. At first, the going was slow. English was a vicious little rottweiler puppy of a language. I’d have to look up every three or four words, and it was frustrating. Little by little — through sheer determination and an aversion to wanting to spend time with other kids, I suppose — the language stopped baring its teeth, threatening to take my hand off at the slightest provocation. After a while, it calmed down sufficiently to sit with me quietly. By the time it had softened enough that I didn’t need the dictionary anymore at all, I scritched it behind the ears and occasionally threw it a thesaurus word or two. I forgave it for its occasional snap at my ankles — I mean, who can deduce what architectonics means from context.
Once fully tamed, plowed through books at an alarming rate. At first one per month, but as my command of the English language and my speed-reading skills improved, the speed picked up dramatically. At one point I discovered that I could read not by reading each individual letter making up every word on the page, but just sort of lazily zig-zag my eyes down the middle of the page, and somehow the contents of the page would assemble themselves in my mind. That’s when I really started being trouble — it turns out I was quite the speed reader.
I’d slow down at particularly interesting or well-articulated passages, but we aren’t fooling anyone here: These books weren’t literature. They were rank pulp fiction of the lowest order. Sure, there were some John Le Carre books in there — I had the most profound sense of deja-vu when I watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a movie many years later. I remember nudging my fellow cinemagoer and saying “holy actual hell, I had a dream like this once. I think…” I said, and completely spoilered the movie for the both of us. Only several days later did I realize that… wait, the movie was based on a book, and I had read an awful lot of books. I can only assume that Tinker was one of the hundreds of books I chewed my way through.
I’d read a book every couple of days. In particularly rainy spells, I’d read them at a rate of one, sometimes one and a half book per day. Morning, noon, and night. I was reading under my blankets with a flashlight, inspiring my father to vociferate “turn on some lights, do you want coke-bottle-bottoms for glasses.” The statement confused me more than any other I had ever heard; coca-cola bottles would make an awful eye-sight correction; I was pretty sure he didn't want me reading at all -hence the flashlight — and I’m 99% sure my mother had sent him into my room to tell me to go to sleep, not to turn more lights on. I suppose my father concluded — correctly — that I wasn’t going to stop reading no matter what they said to me, and just wanted to lob me some guidance for my journey. I mean, what were they going to do? Send me to my room without a book? Force me to watch television?
On this thanksgiving day of 2021, all of the above are things I am ever so grateful for. To my parents and my sister, thank you for not interrupting my reading as often as you might have. I love you.