Why you should read to your children.

Don’t worry; I’m not going back to that whole post a day thing. Like I said the other day, I had a bunch of posts lying around, so I decided to pop a couple of them on here to test them out. This will most likely be the last of them. I’m about to slap them all together into a dummy blog and sally forth to talk the powers that be into letting me start a blog for the bookshop I run. Wish me luck…

If they go for it, I might pop the odd link onto 23thorns, if I think the post is worthy. If not, the idea has been fun while it lasted, but you will never get to know the reasons why you should read romance novels about bare-chested cowboys, or books about birds, or quantum physics, or Englebert Humperdinck. And no, I can’t tell you now; I haven’t made them up yet…

As if you need a reason to learn more about "The Hump"!

As if you need a reason to learn more about “The Hump”!

Anyhow, here’s my post on why you should read to your children.

Because it will make them smarter.

 

Although it might have a strange effect on their hair.

Although it may have a strange effect on their hair.

That was easy, wasn’t it? We can all go home now. It was also, however, wrong. I don’t read many business books, but one of the few that I have read is an unusual little creature called “Freakonomics”. You should come and pick up a copy. From ♦♦♦♦ Books. In ♦♦♦♦. It might just change the way you think about the world.

One of the fascinating little snippets in “Freakonomics” deals with the effect of books on children. A bunch of scientists examined the early test scores of a bunch of small children to see whether books had any effect on them. The results were a little surprising.

First, they isolated the results of the kids who were read to every night by their parents. Their scores were the same as those of the rest of the kids. Which is disappointing.

 

You get what you get, apparently...

You get what you get, apparently…

Then they isolated the results of the kids whose families had lots of books in their houses. Their test scores were higher than those of the rest of the kids. This is wonderful news. All you need to do to make your children smarter is to go out and buy a huge pile of books. And I know just where you can do that. ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. Just saying.

Or not. “Freakonomics” had a pretty sensible sounding explanation for why this was happening. Genetics. Smart people tend to have smart children. And smart people tend to have houses full of books. Not always, on either count, but often enough to bump up those test scores. Sadly enough, all those books weren’t magically increasing the intelligence of the children in their proximity.

Bummer. I just spent thousands redecorating the kids' rooms.

Bummer. I just spent thousands redecorating the kids’ rooms.

 

This isn’t going well, is it? I’m trying to tell you why you should read to your children, and so far I’ve laid out some fairly good reasons why you shouldn’t bother. But.

A few years ago, a YouTube clip appeared on the interweb. A ten-year-old boy had gone to a funfair, where he had had his face painted like a zombie. He was being interviewed by a reporter using that breathlessly excited, palpably patronising tone reporters use when they are forced to interview little children.

 

I don't think he was buying it...

I don’t think he was buying it…

“You’re looking good!” she cooed. “You just got an awesome facepaint job! What do you think?”

“I”, replied the redoubtable young man, staring off into the middle distance, “like turtles.”

Do you want to be responsible for making that guy? Or that girl? Do you really want to be to blame when one day, years from now, some poor sausage feels their heart sink as, shortly after sitting down for a formal dinner, they find their companion for the next four hours, the fruit of your loins, the apple of your eye, turning toward them and announcing “I changed my favourite colour today! It’s green now”?

Do you want to find yourself living out your own final years in Shady Acres, and have your only visitor in months lean slowly toward the bed to which you are confined and say, with all the energy and excitement of a resting caterpillar, “I dug a hole, Dad”?

 

Although, to be fair, that's a pretty damn good hole.

Although, to be fair, that’s a pretty damn good hole.

I am not a scientist. I’m a bookseller. I have not read the research those scientists produced, and I don’t have the faintest idea of how you would go about testing the intelligence of small children. The little buggers can’t even drive, let alone read or write. I am, however, pretty sure those tests don’t cover things like the size of their worlds and breadth of their imaginations or whether they were interesting people or not.

And that’s the thing. You are not, as a parent, slowly and carefully building a super genius, just like you are not building a super-fast runner or a really good hitter of golf balls. Or at least I hope you aren’t. You’re making a person. A whole one. And then you are unleashing that person on the world. That sort of thing comes with a few responsibilities. Duties.

You need to make a person that the rest of us will like being around. A person who is witty and interesting and engaging, who makes four-hour formal dinners more bearable, not endless. A person who can talk about anything, with anyone, anywhere. A person whose world is wide enough and deep enough for the rest of us to dive into without cracking our heads on a shallow sheet of rock just below the surface.

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The truth is that there is very little you can do to change someone’s intelligence. It’s in there already, like eye colour or whether their earlobes hang loose or are connected to their heads. There is, however, a great deal you can do to influence the way they use that intelligence. Things like vocabulary and general knowledge and mental agility and imagination might not matter much when it comes to early test scores, but they start to matter a great deal later on.

So how do you give your children a wide vocabulary and a broad general knowledge? And a vivid imagination and insight into the behaviour of others and an understanding of how the natural world works and an informed idea of politics and a well-developed sense of humour? Well, it’s easy. And very, very hard. You turn them into readers. And how do you turn them into readers? It’s not an exact science, but reading to them in bed every night when they’re small is a pretty good place to start. And even if it doesn’t take, you will have at least started them out in life with the knowledge that there is more to their world than the dreck that they watch on the Disney Channel.

So that’s why you should read to your children. The big reason. One day, I might get stuck next to them at a formal dinner, and you don’t want to make me sad.

"You won't like me when I'm sad." (The quotation marks are there because I'm quoting from the script of a new movie I'm writing; "The Incredible Sulk" Sorry.

“You won’t like me when I’m sad.”
(The quotation marks are there because I’m quoting from the script of a new movie I’m writing; “The Incredible Sulk”)
Sorry.

 

But there’s another reason. A smaller reason. A quieter one. But maybe, in its own subtle way, a more important one.

If you already have slightly older children, you will already know this, but if you’re just starting out, I have some disconcerting news for you. You just gave birth to a monster. A werewolf.

A rather special kind of werewolf. One whose changes are triggered not by the phases of the moon, but by the onset of evening. As your kids get a little bit older, you are going to start noticing something. Every day, starting at round about four o’clock, your precious little angel is going to turn into the devil incarnate.

 

I don't read much on religion. Is this what the devil incarnate looks like?

I don’t read much on religion. Is this what the devil incarnate looks like?

And stay that way until bedtime. Happy or sad, they will bounce off walls and run screaming down passages. Burglar bars will become ladders. Furniture will become mountains to be scaled. The floor will turn to lava, and blankets and cushions will be ripped from the bottom of piles in your linen cupboard and strewn across the carpet to make it safe to walk on.

Supper will become a test of wills, an intricate game of chess with the pieces replaced by bowls of pudding and threats of no TV. As an opening move, your special little star will fall to their knees twenty minutes before supper, weeping because they are so starving. And then they will refuse to eat.

The announcement of bathtime will become a declaration of war, a pitched battle fought over bubblebath and wildly varying but very specific temperature requirements, followed shortly afterward by another pitched battle to get them out again. Be very, very careful to choose the right towel. And jammies.

 

I said purple! These are mauve!

I said purple! These are mauve!

Your children will become both hyper-clumsy and hyper-sensitive to pain. They will walk into tables and trip over carpets before falling to the ground clutching themselves and screaming like world cup soccer players trying to get a penalty. And God help you if you try to get them into the bath with anything even resembling an injury. Bathwater is like kryptonite for toddlers.

And then you have to try and get the little buggers into bed…

Yup. The last few hours you spend with your child are, for a while at least, going to be harrowing. There will be hysteria. Sulking. Shouting. Shrieking. Tears will be shed, doors will be slammed, threats made, bags packed. And that’s just going to be you. Your children will be worse. You may not believe me, but this is gospel. Check with any parents out there. They may have different names for it; the witching hour, the daily hell, crazy hour, Armageddon, Ragnarock. But they will all recognise it.

Fear not! Like all things parenting, this too will pass. However…

Remember how, when you started out on the relationship that led your having kids in the first place, everyone told you never to go to bed angry? It gets said so much that it sounds trite, but it’s good advice. And here’s the thing; it doesn’t just apply to you and your partner.

There’s a way to make things right. A way to calm the troubled soul of your little werewolves before you release them into sleep. A way for you to smile and talk and laugh a little, to draw a line under the ordeal you have just been through. A way to lie shoulder to shoulder under the warmth of the blankets and remember that you do actually like each other, and that the thing with werewolves is that the teeth only come out when the moon is full.

 

The hair, however, is pretty much always like that...

The hair, however, is pretty much always like that…

Books. Read to your child. Every night. They will love it, and believe it or not, so will you, if you choose the right books. It will become a ceremony; the choosing of the story for the evening, getting the pillows arranged just so, using the right voices for the right characters…

Slowly, as you travel the well-worn paths of an old favourite or step cautiously into a new, unexplored world, the light of madness will be exorcised from your child’s eyes, and they will soften and unwind at your side. A drowsy little head will ease down onto your shoulder, a small warm hand will come to rest on your arm, and as sleep slowly brings its sweet release, you will find that the devil has been driven out, and your sweet little angel is back, and the whole ordeal will be that much easier to deal with the next day.

And that’s not all. They will remember this. Forever. The time you spend doing this will become a part of their being, like the times you sing to them, or swing them around by their arms on the lawn, or run outside with them in the dark, or in the rain, a touchstone used to measure other joys. The stories you read them will become part of the magic of childhood they carry around as adults. No-one has ever said that about television.

 

The magic of childhood.

The cheap sleight-of-hand trick of childhood.

So that’s about it then. Read to your children. Do it to make them better at being smart. Do it to make them interesting, and witty, and engaging. Do it to calm them, and to make them happy, and to fill their hearts with magical memories. Do it because books should be part of the fabric of childhood.

But most of all do it for me. I might just end up sitting next to them at a formal dinner one day…”

 

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Bookclubs.

As promised, I am putting up a couple of posts that I had written for a putative blog for the bookshop I manage. I have written a few, but haven’t been able to go live with my blog yet. I need to hammer out some sort of deal with my head office. They have just moved into a shiny new office, with shiny new furniture and shiny new computers. What they do not have, despite promises to the contrary by various government departments, are shiny new telephone lines and shiny new internet connections. They’re a little distracted right now. This is not hammer time.

 

Which is a pity, since hammer time is probably my favourite time.

Which is a pity, since hammer time is probably my favourite time.

I am hoping to recruit a few more bookclubs for my store. And I suspect I’m going to run into a little trouble from all of you.

I remember hearing, years ago, that the South African bookclub is a unique thing. Our thing. The story went that isolated farming communities were getting together to pool their resources to get hold of books, which they then shared among themselves, like a members-only library. Somewhere along the line, people realised that the social aspect of these clubs was as fun as the literary one, and when the isolated farmers started to move to town, they took their bookclubs with them.

And there’s more to the story, too. Bookclubs were, back in the day, a white thing. But they were one of the few crossovers, in the days of “whites only” park benches and policemen in body-armour patrolling local shopping centres and plastic relief posters of terrorist bombs on post office walls, between white and black culture.

Black people, back in the day, were largely denied access to formal financial structures like banking and insurance. So they created their own structures, and one of these was the “stokvel”. It’s a curious sort of name, because it’s Afrikaans, and means “stick skin”. And no, I don’t know why.

This does not clear anything up.

This does not clear anything up.

 

A stokvel works like this; a group of friends or neighbours gets together for some specific purpose. It could be for weddings, or funerals, or parties, or pretty much anything that requires the occasional injection of cash.

Each member makes a monthly contribution, which is held in trust. When the need arises, the money goes to the member who needs it, or to the group as a whole (this works pretty damn well with parties). It is, in effect, an old school insurance policy, without the bank charges and taxes and formal legal requirements. And it lives on. For now. I was a little crushed to hear a formal banker type on the radio the other day announcing that she thought stokvels were a very good idea and the formal sector felt it was high time they got involved. To help. Not to take their share of all that lovely money, I’m sure. But I digress.

A bookclub is essentially a stokvel; a bunch of private individuals pooling their resources for their mutual benefit. Books. I can think of no better way to manage a cultural crossover.

And now you get to burst my bubble and tell me that there are bookclubs all over the world, and they have nothing to do with stokvels. You can go first, Australia…

 

A typical Australian sets of for his bookclub meeting.

A typical Australian sets of for his bookclub meeting.

Anyway, here’s my putative bookclub post. Mzansi is South Africa. I’ve blanked out some of the names, because that’s how I roll (few of you might have realised that my name isn’t really 23thorns…).

“I come from a large, loud, boisterous gang of a family. We are close. Growing up, we moved as a pack; whatever we did, we did as a group. We socialised as a family. Any friends our parents had were family friends. We travelled as a family, stayed at home as a family, went out to dinner as a family. My mother was (and is) a homemaker, and spent most of her life running around behind four busy children. And then there were “the girls”.

The girls.

The girls.

 

Once a month, on the last Thursday of every month, my mother would set aside the school lunches and the birthday parties and the extra lessons and the soccer matches and the family braais, and head off to spend a morning with “the girls”. She still does.

It was, as far as I ever knew, the only thing she ever did which was hers and hers alone. I never really knew who “the girls” were. They were not my mother’s friends in the way we understood the concept. They didn’t know my father well enough to call him his nickname like all the other grownups around us did. We children were not required to prefix their names with “Aunt”. They never popped in for a visit on the weekend or dropped in for a cup of coffee after the school run. I have met one or two of them over the years, incidentally at shopping centres or restaurants, but I could not name a single one of them now.

“The girls” are my mother’s bookclub. My mother is in her seventies now, and “the girls” have been together for longer than I have been alive; more than four decades (which should call into question their definition of themselves as “girls”, but who am I to question the wisdom of my elders?). There have, no doubt, been changes over the years, as people have moved away and new people have moved in, but the core has remained the same. Yup. “The girls” have shown more commitment to their bookclub than most people show to their marriages.

 

They might be getting on a bit, but they're still a pretty rough crowd.

They might be getting on a bit, but they’re still a pretty rough crowd.

What they are doing, if my understanding is correct, is uniquely South African.

Sure, other countries have things called bookclubs. We would call them reading circles. They work like this; all the members of the club go out and buy a book. The same book. They read it. Then they get together and talk about it. Which is, I’m sure, very nice, if you’re into that sort of thing, but sounds just a little bit like work to me. School work.

There are even clubs that go one better. They are correctly referred to as book reading clubs. They sound magnificent. A group of people get together once a month, and one of their number reads a book to them. Aloud. I would pay good money to be a fly on the wall at one of their meetings. I have so many questions. Does the reader do different voices when the characters are speaking? Are there sound effects? Are the listeners allowed to make eye-contact with the reader? Do you get kicked out if you shoot coffee out of your nose during a pivotal sex-scene?

 

Sorry! Allergies!

Sorry! Allergies!

And in South Africa? Things work a little differently. ‘Round here, your bookclub gets together to buy the books. And you get to read them by yourself. This is how it works;

  • Step one:            Go and find yourself a bunch of members. They don’t have to be girls. Or even women. You can even invite a boy or two. It would be best if they aren’t all friends of yours. Choose one or two of your own friends, and get them to choose one or two of theirs, and so on. If you suffer from OCD, it would be best to get twelve members; one for each month. If not, you can get away with anything from about six to about fifteen.

 

  • Step two:            Go to the ♦♦♦♦Books in ♦♦♦♦ and fill out a book-club registration form. You’ll need to leave a copy of your license, and fill in the contact details of all of your members.

 

  • Does it have to be the ♦♦♦♦Books in ♦♦♦♦? It most certainly does. If you go somewhere else, we will be sad. We will be distant when we are with our partners, and short tempered with our children. And you wouldn’t want that now, would you?

 

  • Step three:         Set yourself up a roster. Each time you meet, you need to have a different member acting as the book-getter. For your first meeting, I’m going to assume that it’s you, since you are clearly a trailblazer and an adventurous spirit.

 

  • Step four:            At last, we come to the book part. Go and get some books. From ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. We’d prefer for you to take novels, but won’t be too upset if you throw in a novel-sized biography or history. Stay away from the R1000,00 cookery books, though. Choose about twelve or so books. Don’t worry, you won’t be buying all of these. We’re just going to let you take them home. Because we know you aren’t going to read them for free and then bring them back. We are trusting like that. You will, of course, need to check them out at the till; we do need to keep some semblance of order round here.

 

  • Step five:             You are now ready for your first meeting. Arrange a get-together with the other members. Bring wine. You might just need it; you’re about to have an argument. Haul out the books you got and display them to the assembled members. You’re about to whittle them down from twelve to the four or five you are going to buy. Things are going to get a little heated. Someone is going to make a snide remark about at least one the books you chose, and everyone will disagree about which books to buy. If they don’t, your members are not passionate enough about books, or arguing, and you need to kick them out and choose another lot.

 

  • Step six:               That’s it as far as the book part of your bookclub meeting goes. All you need to do is draw up another roster so that, over the next few weeks or months, each member gets a chance to read each of the books you have chosen to buy. If you were left unsatisfied by your argument about books, you can now have an argument about money (We do need to get paid, after all). If not, you have nowhere else to be. You have wine. If you’ve chosen well, you have good company. You have wine. And you have one night off from the rest of your life which is yours and yours alone. Make the most of them.
We're not here to judge...

We won’t judge you, I promise…

 

  • Step seven:        The next day, bring the books you have decided not to buy back to ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. And bring some money for the books you have decided to keep. So very pleased will we be that, if you buy enough books, we will give you a discount. And the more books you buy, the more pleased will we be.

So that’s it. That’s how to bookclub, Mzansi style. It’s all rather straightforward.

It is not, however, ironclad. If you live out of town, or happen to know exactly what you want, you can simply buy the books before the meeting. As long as you have registered, and spend above the threshold limit, you will still get your discount. But you’ll be missing out on a damn fine argument. Just saying.

 

"I TOLD YOU NEVER TO BRING ANOTHER NORA ROBERTS! EVER!" "IT'S NOT A NORA ROBERTS! IT'S A J.D.ROBB!"

“I TOLD YOU NEVER TO BRING ANOTHER NORA ROBERTS! EVER!”
“IT’S NOT A NORA ROBERTS! IT’S A J.D.ROBB!”

You can, should you feel that way inclined, buy a copy of the same book for each member of the club, read it beforehand, and then discuss it at the meeting. We will be impressed, and ever so slightly intimidated.

You can even buy just a single book, and read it out loud at your next bookclub meeting. You are unlikely to qualify for the official discount, but if you promise to invite us along to your meeting, I’m sure we can make a plan. If you use different voices for different characters, throw in the odd sound effect, and cover a pivotal sex-scene, you might even get to see us shoot coffee out of our noses.

I owe you a bit of an apology. This article was called “Why you should start a bookclub”, not “How you should start a bookclub”, and now I’ve been rattling on about admin for an age, and am running out of time. And space.

So here goes. We live in a city. So many of us have been thrown together in so little space that we have become isolated. We are friends to our friends, family to our family, and avoid everyone else. We don’t get together for village fairs or barn raisings or cake-sales at the town hall. Half of us don’t even know our neighbours. It’s bad for us. We need to get out more. And if we do so in honour of books, so much the better.

 

Some people choose to be isolated. This woman, however, clearly has cooties.

Some people choose to be isolated. This woman, however, clearly has cooties.

But that’s not all! We are by no means a selfless society, and yet we have somehow forgotten to do things for ourselves. Not selfish things, just our own things. We live for our jobs or our children or our partners. We spend our free time doing team-building exercises with colleagues, or watching our children play sport, or hanging around with people who aren’t blood kin, but whom our children refer to as “Aunt So-and-so” or “Uncle Whatsit”

We need to start doing more things that are our own things, not shared things. We need to find more people who are our own people, not shared people. We need to spend a little time that is our own time, not shared time. And if we satisfy that need with something as harmless and benevolent as a bookclub, no-one in our lives can honestly claim that their feelings are being hurt.

But wait! There’s more! (Sorry. I watched a lot of infomercials in the eighties). One day we’re all going to be in our seventies. What a rare thing it would be to look back and to remember that you popped out one evening all those years ago to check out what this whole “bookclub” thing was all about. To remember feeling a little nervous, a little shy, and a little excited about trying a new thing with new people. And to remember that it turned out to be good enough to stick with for forty years, through arrivals and departures and births and deaths and marriages and divorces. And then to stop looking back and instead start looking forward, because you would be doing it again next Thursday.

Just remember to take along some bail money.

Just remember to take along some bail money.

 

And that is all. No more “there’s mores”. Except for a rather obvious one. More books. For less money. At ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦.”

Bookshop

I have, in partial explanation for my extended absence, returned to my old job of managing a bookstore. It’s all been a bit strange; comfortingly familiar and weirdly unfamiliar at the same time.

The store is, for a start, in a very different area from the previous store I managed, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The old store was in a venerable old suburb, filled with venerable old people. I was young there. Now I am old, and half of my customers look like they should be accompanied by a responsible adult. They are just starting out in life, with first homes and tiny children. I do a roaring trade in pregnancy books. But that’s not all. A huge proportion of my customers are Afrikaans.

That makes me not just old, but tiny. There is a reason why South Africa does so well at rugby. Afrikaans people are big. Not all of them, obviously, but the small ones are all my size. And in my old area, I was on the larger side.

An Afrikaans person saying hello to an Australian.

An Afrikaans person saying hello to an Australian.

People act differently, too. Couples hold hands. It’s the sweetest thing. It doesn’t sound like much, but on my first day, it stopped me dead in my tracks. No-one used to do that in my old area. And it’s not those young people I talked about, either, it’s the old ones; stooped, greying Darby and Joan types, tall, angular men and dumpy little women, pootling around comfortably, arm in arm or hand in hand like teenagers. And daughters seem to spend an awful lot of their time hanging round with their mothers…

 

Maybe they just need  something to lean on.

Maybe they just need something to lean on.

But that’s not what I’m on about today. Something else is different. The pressure is on. The economy is tanking for a second time, and young couples just starting out in life are kinda sensitive to that sort of thing. Suddenly, instead of filling up a room with books and sitting back to watch them walk out of the store, I actually have to go out and sell the damn things. It’s most disconcerting. Community marketing, the bosses call it…

And so I decided to start a blog for my store. Nothing fancy, just a friendly little place where people could come to talk about books. Generally. I am, despite my calling, not much of a salesman. I have loved books all of my life, but cannot bring myself to stand up and shout about how fantastic the new Donna Tartt book is, and why you should get two in case one spontaneously combusts. Instead I hoped to sit down quietly and chat about how nice it is to surround yourself with words. Any words, be they a life changing, anguished dissection of the emptiness of the human experience or a rattling yarn about how a roguish Scottish laird seduces an innocent young governess while somehow losing track of his shirt, despite the nippy highland weather.

 

Chapter one: Find him a shirt.

Chapter one: Find him something warm to wear.

I have, in other words, been doing a bit of writing. Just not here. There’s a problem, though. I work for a large chain. They cannot simply unleash fifty or so starry-eyed individuals on the internet armed only with a company logo and a dream. There are risks.

And so I’m finding my little bookshop blog to be a bit of a hard sell. I get it. We all remember this woman, and she was a pro. But I don’t like writing things and then saving them in a folder. This blog has been calling to me. There are people here…

And so I’ve decided to slap up a few of my planned posts for your enjoyment, or otherwise. This is the first. I hope you like it. Or at least tell me if you don’t. If it makes you rush out and blow your lunch-money on books about bare-chested Scotsmen, let me know; it might just help me convince the powers that be to let me loose on the interweb.

 

I promise to be discreet...

I promise to be discreet…

“In the dining room of my childhood home there was a huge, glass-fronted, antique cupboard filled with precious things. Books. And not just any books. My father’s mother was a bibliophile. A collector. The cupboard was filled with leather and cloth-bound first editions, some of them signed and some of them containing folded-up letters from exotic people like T.E. Lawrence (yup, my granny seems to have been pen-pals with Lawrence of Arabia).

The first of these treasures I was allowed to touch was The Jungle Book. It was a thing of beauty, bound in coarse, red cloth; its yellowing pages hiding richly coloured illustrations nestled between sheets of tissue paper. Proper illustrations; illustrations of tigers that looked like they would tear your throat out rather than say something snide about the cut of your jib, and monkeys that would raid your crops without singing a single word in a raspy Louis Armstrong voice.

I was deeply impressed. Not by the beauty of the thing; children are savages. No. I was impressed to learn that Mowgli was raised by wolves. And wore rather fewer pants than the good people at Disney would have you believe. But mostly that he was raised by wolves.

 

Sing me a song, Bagheera. A song about pants.

Sing me a song, Bagheera. A song about pants.

I wasn’t raised by wolves. I wasn’t even allowed to sleep in the kitchen with the dogs. But I came a close second. I was raised, at least in part, by bookshops.

It was my parents’ fault. They blessed me with three sisters. Having three sisters is nice. Most of the time. Going shopping with three sisters does not fit into the category of “most of the time”. It was excruciating. Three different favourite shops. Three different sets of clothes to choose. Three different opinions on what worked and what didn’t. Three different emotional breakdowns when a pair of jeans seemed to magnify rather than flatter. An afternoon could last a lifetime.

And then things changed. We started off a visit to the shops by stopping in at a bookshop. My mother found what she was looking for, paid, and turned to go. I didn’t. “Could I”, I asked in the querulous, wheedling voice that all children adopt when they know the answer is going to be “no”, “stay here until you guys are finished shopping?” The answer was not “no”.

Excellent! While my sisters hunted cheerfully through the bright lights and bustling crowds for purple leg-warmers and shiny bubble-skirts (it was the eighties) I found myself a haven, a quiet place that smelled of paper and held the keys to a limitless supply of words and all the magic they could conjour up.

 

Things would have been different if I'd known what I was missing.

Things would have been different if I’d known what I was missing.

And so, all those years ago, I learnt something important. Bookshops are different.

The shopping malls and high-streets of the world are full of places where you can spend money. But there aren’t many places there where you can spend time. Give it a try. Give yourself four hours in your favourite clothing shop. Or furniture shop. Or electronics shop. You’ll be crawling up the walls long before you’re done; there aren’t that many ways to look at a chair, and even the unparalleled thrill of trying on new pants gets a little old after the first hour or so.

And bookshops? You can pick up an obscure natural history book because the guy on the back looks a little like your high-school geography teacher and leave three hours later with an encyclopaedic knowledge of badgers and a slight feeling of resentment that you weren’t allowed to mark your page by folding over the corner of the page.

 

Ask me anything...

Ask me anything…

Which leads me to the next thing which sets bookshops apart. Bookshops are pretty much the only commercial operations in the world which let you consume their products for free. Give it a whirl; nip around Woolworths opening up the packages and trying a grape or two here or a stick of salami there. Stride purposefully into your local pharmacy, open up a new toothbrush and take it for a test-drive. And then, when an enraged and slightly nervous looking security guard rushes over, smile at him and tell him that you’re “just browsing”. It won’t go well.

And bookshops? That’s exactly what they’re there for. Step in out of the bustling crowds and wonder at the wealth of words surrounding you. Pick up a biography, flick through to the pictures in the middle and spend a happy few minutes dipping into the faded record of a stranger’s life. Don’t crack the spines, though. We hate that. Read the first paragraph of that novel everyone has been talking about. Check out the headlines of the papers. Flick though a magazine or two. You can even sit down and page through a picture book with your child. No-one will bother you; you’ll be doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

You’ll meet some interesting types in bookshops, too. Books are a magnet for charmingly peculiar people. Growing up, I got to know, by sight at least, and sometimes by name, a few of them. There was the wild-eyed, wild-haired man who stalked between the shelves in the same fading brown suit for more than a decade, driving children from the comics section by staring at them wordlessly until they backed slowly away behind the nearest best-seller display. There was the soft, round, gentle-looking lady who seemed genuinely overjoyed to find small people in her presence, but had no idea how to relate to them, winking and giggling and warbling and pulling funny faces until she was overcome by sudden shyness, reddening and scuttling off self-consciously to rearrange a perfectly well ordered shelf. There was the fierce, hatchet-faced old crow whose appearance completely belied her nature, who never learned my name, but knew every book I had read and who knew before I did which new books I would love.

 

She always seemed to have a snack ready for me, too.

She always seemed to have a snack ready for me, too.

And so, having grown up like this, I know exactly what I want my store to be. Come in and spend some time. Step out of the light and the noise and the crowds into a place filled with more words and pictures and stories than most of humanity throughout history would have encountered in their entire lives. Strike up a conversation with a bookseller; they tend to be a friendly and interesting lot. Sit down on the floor; we don’t mind, and browsing those bottom shelves while hunched over like Quasimodo is murder on the spine. Sample our wares. Pick up a book you have no intention of buying. Feel the weight of it in your hands. Take in the aroma of fresh paper and glue. Dip in to a paragraph or two.

And maybe, just maybe, you can take a couple home with you. A book is, after all, nothing but a bundle of empty words until it finds a life to touch and a home to make warmer. And we booksellers do, after all is said and done, need to eat.”

And working with books burns a lot of Calories.

And working with books burns a lot of Calories.

Hansel and Gretel.

Right. I have now settled into my new old job, and have no excuses left for neglecting my blog. And yet I’m struggling to get back on the horse. There is an underlying reason for this; I’m bored.

It’s a peculiar form of boredom. I’m bored of the stories I haven’t written. There’s a lot going on here at the moment. There’s an election coming up, so everyone is a liar, a thief, a racist or delusional. To make things a little more interesting, we have recently found out that our esteemed President, a man who dodged over seven hundred corruption charges and a rape charge before reaching his current lofty position, has somehow ended up with a private home in the middle of nowhere that has cost us taxpayers a quarter of a billion Rand.

 

Did I say home? I meant homes.

Did I say home? I meant homes.

I have quite a lot to say about this. So does everyone else. Boring.

Then there’s the Oscar Pistorius trial, an object lesson on why we should stop making gods of men and shouldn’t let little boys play with live ammunition.

 

Behold! The world's most unfortunately worded advertising campaign.

Behold! The world’s most unfortunately worded advertising campaign.

I have quite a lot to say about this. So does everyone else. Boring.

Just in case I thought this would all be over too soon, we have just welcomed a charming new potential resident to our fair land. A young man named Shrien Dewani has recently been extradited back to our sunny shores. If the state is to be believed, the good Mr Dewani is the inventor of a new sort of tourism. A year or two ago, he visited us on his honeymoon, and (allegedly) celebrated his new union by having his bride murdered in a staged hijacking.

 

The magic wore off pretty damn quickly...

The magic wore off pretty damn quickly…

I am going to have quite a lot to say about this. So is everyone else. Boring.

I have always subscribed to the belief that only boring people get bored. So I’m going to try something new. I’m going to tell you a story. When I started this blog, I hoped to use it as a tool to help me write a novel. Hah! I have not written a single word of fiction since month two.

So now it’s time to get back to my roots. I’m going to write some fiction. But not my own fiction. That seems just a little too much like hard work. I’m going to tell you a fairy story. It’ll help if you pretend to be five.

Hansel and Gretel.

Hello there, vaguely small people (don’t look so nervous; I’m also pretending that you’re five). My name is Uncle 23thorns, and I’m going to tell you a little story. Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived…

 

Come, children, sit at my feet and listen.

Come, children, sit at my feet and listen.

Sorry, but I’m going to have to stop right there. We need to clear a few things up before we start. First of all, my name is not actually 23thorns. Amazing, right? That’s just a pseudonym. An alias. A nom de plume. It’s a name I made up so that I could hide my real identity, like Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, but without any superpowers.

I use it so that I won’t have to take responsibility for anything I write. Your parents should be able to explain it to you; just ask them why they used to book into hotels as “Mr and Mrs Smith” before you were born. Unless your surname is Smith. Then you’re on your own.

I’m not your uncle, either, by the way. But, like a real uncle, I’m happy to give you free and helpful advice. Like this: If anyone who is not the brother of one of your parents tells you to call him “uncle”, run as fast as you can to a brightly lit place and tell the unfriendliest looking adult you can find that you are being stalked by a weirdo.

 

If this is the unfriendliest looking adult you can find, keep running.

Come, children. Show me this weirdo who is bothering you…

Enough. I was getting ready to tell you a story. A fairy tale. Hansel and Gretel.

Yup. You read that right. Hansel and Gretel. The story your parents used to tell you. I know what you’re thinking; lame! (Do five year olds say “lame”?) You’ve moved on. Fairy stories are for babies. You couldn’t be more wrong.

Parents tell their babies and toddlers fairy stories because babies and toddlers are mentally deficient. Slow. Not too bright. They can’t read or write or operate heavy machinery. Once they get a bit older, though, they start to get a bit smarter. And then parents stop with the fairy tales.

They don’t stop telling them because they think you would be bored. They are, to put things simply, afraid that the fairy stories are just a bit too hard-core for you. They don’t want to freak you out.

 

Which is a pity. Fairy tales teach kids so much about wildlife.

Which is a pity. Fairy tales teach kids so much about wildlife.

Luckily for you, I am not afraid. It’s not that I think you’re smart or tough enough to cope with the harsh truth of fairy tales. It’s just that I am writing under an alias, and don’t have to take responsibility for my actions. So where were we? Oh yes…

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived…

Sorry. Time to stop again. I just need to clear something up before we go on. Hansel and Gretel did not live in a faraway land once upon a time. Hansel and Gretel lived in Germany, around 1315. I know that seems a little specific, but it matters. You’ll see. Anyway, back to the story…

In 1315, in Germany, lived a kindly woodcutter and his two children, Hansel and Gretel. And their stepmother. Their wicked stepmother. I don’t know why they even bother with the “wicked” part. Have you ever heard of any other kind in fairy tales? The story of Spackel and Brumhilde who lived in a forest with their vicious, bitter old father and their gentle, kind-hearted stepmother, and a magical llama called Rusty who laid golden eggs?

 

Laying all those eggs has taken a terrible toll on Rusty.

Laying all those eggs has taken a terrible toll on Rusty.

Times have obviously changed a little. People get divorced. Fathers remarry. And so we all know a few stepmothers. I, personally, however, don’t know any wicked ones. Some stepmothers are trickier than others, sure, but wicked? It may sound like a corny and old-fashioned word these days, but if you take a closer look at some of those fairy stories, you’ll notice that being “wicked” was a pretty serious business back in the day. Like slavery serious. Child labour serious. Murder serious. Which leads me back to our cute little fairy story…

One night, Hansel and Gretel overheard their stepmother (who was wicked), telling their father (who was kindly) to take them out into the forest and leave them there because they were eating too much food.

Is it just me, or did things just turn pretty dark, pretty quickly. We’re only in the second paragraph (at least we would be if you didn’t keep interrupting), and our sweet little toddler story is suddenly about murder. Child murder.

Because that’s what this is. The forest in Germany wasn’t a few trees in a park with some well laid out trails through it and a concession stand at one end covered with posters of bears in hats asking you not to litter or set fire to their home. It was a dark, endless mass of trees that stretched to cover most of the country. There were bears. And wolves. And no food. Leaving kids in the forest meant leaving kids for dead.

 

Luckily their last moments will be filled with joy and wonder.

Luckily their last moments would be filled with joy and wonder.

Most kids. Not the intrepid Hansel. He gathered up a pocketful of white pebbles, and, as his kindly father led him off into the woods to die cold and alone and hungry (the word “kindly” has clearly gone through some pretty profound changes in meaning since 1315), he left a trail of pebbles behind him. That night, when the moon came out, the children followed the path of shining stones back home.

Smart, huh? Except for one tiny detail. Home just happened to be the place where the people trying to murder them lived. So maybe not so smart. But we have to be fair, I suppose. There was no such thing as family services in Germany in 1315. There wasn’t even such a thing as the police. So home it was. For a night.

The next day, their kindly father led them off to die again. Maybe “kindly” meant “persistent”. This time, Hansel didn’t have time to collect any pebbles, so he took a piece of bread with him and left a trail of crumbs.

Smart, huh? Or not. The crumbs were eaten up by birds. Which seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. If this was my story, the trail would have been followed by a hungry bear, and we would have seen some action.

 

And the trail would have been made of bacon.

And the trail would have been made of bacon.

But no. No bears. Don’t worry, though. This is where things get a bit freaky. Hansel and Gretel do not collapse to the ground and starve, clinging together at the base of a sprawling tree, regretting up to their last breath the fact that they fed their only food to the birds. Nope. They poke around in the forest for a bit before finding a house made of gingerbread. Which they eat.

Right. So we’ve gone from dark to supremely odd. Half a second ago, it was just a sweet little story about a kindly woodcutter and a wicked stepmother trying to murder their kids, and now all of a sudden the kids are eating someone’s house. Someone’s edible house. Don’t do drugs, kids. Just saying.

And then, almost immediately, we go back to dark again. One brief, cheerful patch of house-eating after a bit of attempted child-murder, and we get back to the imminent demise of Hansel and Gretel. The owner of the house, you see, comes back. Is she the cheerful, rounded, rosy cheeked woman you would expect to find living in a house made of food? She is not.

She is a vicious old witch. Despite being blind, and old, she catches the kids. Maybe they have rickets, or seasonal affective disorder. She throws Hansel into a cage and puts Gretel to work cleaning the house. Aaaand… there’s your slavery. And a bit of child imprisonment. Which is really not so bad. In comparison to what is to come.

 

Read to your children. It builds character.

Read to your children. It feeds their imaginations.

The witch, you see, begins to feed Hansel. A lot. Which is nice of her, isn’t it? Unless, of course, she is fattening him up so that she can eat him.

She is fattening him up so she can eat him. So now we have a little cannibalism to go along with our child imprisonment, slavery, and murder. Just the sort of thing to lull a toddler off to sleep.

Anyhow, back to the story. Despite not being able to evade an old blind woman, Hansel still has a trick or two up his sleeve. Every day, the witch comes out to check if he has fattened up enough to eat yet. She does this by pinching his finger. But he is too smart for her. Instead of passing her his finger, he passes her a bone. Yup, in our sweet little toddler story, Hansel is apparently sharing his cage with the skeleton of its last occupant. Cute.

Our witch is obviously getting a little hungry. She decides to cook Hansel anyway. And his little sister. Maybe she wanted some dessert. She fires up her old oven and orders Gretel to climb inside. Gretel, it seems, is a bit of a dark horse. She has hardly featured so far, but now it is her time to shine. She tricks the witch into having a look inside the oven. Maybe she told her she’d dropped some money in there when she was cleaning it. And then she shoves her in. And shuts the door. And cooks her alive. Cute. Toddler stories.

 

In there? How much money?

In there? How much money, exactly?

And then things get a bit weird again. They steal the witch’s treasure (witches, giants, ogres, and dragons always have treasure. It’s the rules) and go back home again. To the people who tried to kill them. Twice.

Luckily, the wicked stepmother has conveniently died during their little holiday, and they live happily ever after with their kindly father. Or so the story goes. Things would be a little awkward, I imagine, when the kindly father tells the kids to clean up their rooms or tells them they can’t have a PlayStation, and they remind him of that time when he tried to kill them. Twice.

So there you have it. The stories you left behind as a toddler were a little rougher than you remember.

And the really scary part? Some of them are also a lot more real than you think. You might have noticed a bit of a food theme running through Hansel and Gretel. The kids are kicked out of home for eating too much food. Their trail home is eaten by birds. They eat a complete stranger’s house. The stranger tries to eat them. They cook the stranger. It all seems just a little bit obsessive. With good reason.

 

The true message of Hansel and Gretel.

The true message of Hansel and Gretel.

Remember Germany? 1315? It was a pretty bad year. There was too much rain. The crops failed, and there was a famine. It happened again the next year. And the next. There was hardly any food around at all until 1322. People starved. Lots of people. People who could no longer feed their families abandoned their children. In forests. And yes, some people resorted to cannibalism. Guards were posted in cemeteries to watch over the recently dead lest they end up as someone’s dinner, while other, more enterprising individuals took a more proactive approach and hunted down and killed their meals.

The Great Famine in largely forgotten now, partly because it happened so long ago but mostly because it was followed almost immediately by the Black Plague, which made it look like a tea party.

Largely forgotten, but not completely forgotten. The pain and the suffering and the social upheaval the plague caused have sent faint echoes down through the ages in the stories we use to help our toddlers go to sleep.

There were not, however, in 1315 or at any other time, any houses made of gingerbread. That’s just a fairy tale.

Although bacon houses or gloriously real...

Although bacon houses are gloriously real…

The Family Business

My wife, bless her, is making great strides in the business she is starting. She’s moved on from the t-shirt idea, and grown obsessed with chemicals. We are currently bottling and labelling thousands of bottles of room freshener at the coffee table in front of the TV. There’s a barrel full of bath salts in the corner. My house smells like a brothel. There’s even an undercurrent of disinfectant from the hand sanitisers we did last week, for added authenticity.

For those of you who have not been following this blog for a while, my wife fell victim to the wave of electronic readers crippling the book industry, and was retrenched by the publisher she worked for. Instead of trying to find another job in a shrinking industry, she decided to try her hand at producing a line of book related products. Turns out that she’s actually very good at it. Since our whole family has a vested interest in her success, I decided to try and help.Turns out I’m a frikkin’ genius at it. Continue reading

Ah. Sex.

My wife has a blog of her own (http://tracyloveshistory.wordpress.com/). Instead of dealing with the broad sweeps of history, like the world wars, or colonialism, she tends to focus on little details that bring history alive, like what underwear the Victorians wore, or what a filthy old pervert Samuel Pepys was.

Lock up your daughters. Seriously.

Continue reading

Crime wave

I wrote a post the other day about how my daughter had stolen my wallet, and hidden it (https://23thorns.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/every-story-needs-an-antagonist/).  Don’t worry, my daughter isn’t a crack addict. At least not that I know of. She’s three. I did sit her down to find out why she had done such a naughty thing, and she came up with a perfectly rational explanation. It was because she wanted to. Continue reading

Oprah lied!

If you had asked me before I was ten, I would have told you that I was an underprivileged child. Not because I was cold, or hungry, or unloved. I was none of those things. Ever. It was because of the A-Team.

I grew up in the golden years of TV shows designed to drive boys wild with excitement. There was MacGyver, there was Knight Rider, there was Airwolf. And there was the A-Team. Play the theme tune from any of those to an entire generation, now pushing forty and trying to work out whether the Jonas brothers are a band, a TV show, or a family owned furniture removal company, and they will stop what they are doing, just for a moment, while a slow, goofy grin toys with the corners of their mouths. They will zone out for a second while they try to dredge the names from the depths of their minds: Hannibal, Murdoch, Michael Knight, Stringfellow Hawk. And then they will carry on with their lives, saddened a little that their own kids will be doing this themselves in 30 years. For the rubbish on the Disney Channel.

Not me though. MY parents thought it would be good for us not to have a TV in the house. It was certainly character building. I went to an all-boys school, and had to learn to negotiate a complicated daily greeting ceremony which involved gangs of small boys in huge grey shorts shouting “Jeeeez! Did you guys check what BA did to Murdoch last night?” I learned very early on that the appropriate response was not “No, but I listened to a fantastic BBC radio play!” To this day, one of my most useful social skills is the knowledge that, if you have absolutely no understanding of what everyone else is talking about, smile and nod. It makes them very happy- not only do you agree with them, you’re not trying to muscle in on their valuable spot in the limelight either. Continue reading

The longest journey begins with a spread sheet about ducks

My plan for the book has started to take shape. I’ve got a spread sheet going now. It has ducks in it. It has other livestock in it too, but sheep are just too silly to talk about when discussing writing techniques. Chickens are too self-important, horses too serious. Don’t even mention turkeys. Ducks it is.

White Duck Portrait

Ducks: the basis of all good fiction.

There are thorns in the spread sheet too, but that goes without saying.

A book of a few hundred pages needs some sort of structure and planning, but I cannot, under any circumstances, bring myself to do one of those horrible spider diagrams. I think they are called mind maps. I hate them with every fibre of my being. Continue reading

Keeping an eye open for our owls

The book has been on the back-burner for a couple of days. We’ve been a little busy, but most of all the weather has just been miserable. The temperature has been below zero (centigrade), and the water has frozen in the pipes outside. This may not sound all that impressive to those of you from Northern climes, but bear in mind that we cheerfully build our houses as if we lived in Borneo. We tell ourselves that winter doesn’t last very long, dress warmly and sit huddled around heaters and fires. Our own house has inch wide gaps under the doors, and only about half the windows close properly. It’s very hard to type when you can’t move your fingers. Continue reading