“When I make a friend I wonder what sits on their bookshelves,” writes Cathy Rentzenbrink, ex-bookseller, bestselling author and amiable bookworm. I smile as I read this. Yes, me too. These last few months of lockdown, forcing so many of us to work from home and Zoom with colleagues, has brought that to the forefront. Displaying (and rearranging) our books became de rigeur. Who would have thought that it would take a global pandemic to turn bookshelves into status symbols?

There’s an unconscious belief that people are defined by the books they read (or is it the other way round?), and it has been rather revealing watching politicians on TV, via video link from their homes, trying to outmanoeuvre each other, and us, with their hastily arranged, somewhat contrived collections. It’s easy to spot a real reader, though, versus those who simply put up their books for show.

Moving house was the inspiration for Cathy’s latest book, as she found herself with new bookshelves to fill, deciding to arrange them chronologically. Like her shelves, Dear Reader is about her life in books, and thankfully for us she kept diaries that also recorded the stories she was reading during the various stages of her life.

This is most definitely a book for avid readers, and arguably for women readers. Not because the author is female, but because it is about a woman’s life and the books she chose to surround herself with. It’s a personal history filled with truth and beauty. The chapters are very cleverly arranged into autobiography interspersed with perfectly placed pauses filled with book lists. My heart ached at Cathy’s recollections of her lonely schoolgirl years (thank goodness for the companionship provided by Little Women and Enid Blyton), and I laughed out loud at her memories of reading Adrian Mole for the first time – matching my own. Her tales of working in bookshops and with prisoners are insightful, honest and engaging. Her methods for teaching those with reading difficulties, driven by her own personal experience close to home, are clearly something society should be adopting across the board. There’s no box-ticking here.

Cathy’s recollections will trigger your own memories, and you might just find yourself wandering over to your bookshelves to rummage for forgotten favourites. There’s so much pleasure to be had in rereading, as Cathy shows. There are times in life when you just have to pick up an Agatha Christie, or escape with the Bennet sisters. Cathy confesses to having read Pride and Prejudice at least 50 times, and as she gets older she increasingly finds the need to “embrace our inner Lydia”!

At one point, Cathy reminisces about venturing into “the grown-up section of the library” which eventually led to her bonkbuster years, reading her way through Jackie Collins, Jilly Cooper, Danielle Steel and Judith Krantz. She had me wracking my brains for my own personal favourites: Susan Howatch and Rona Jaffe. Remember them?!

There are many defining moments in Cathy’s life, but one of the most life-changing (“a grenade that exploded into my lovely little family”) occurred in 1990 when her brother Matty was knocked down by a car and left in a persistent vegetative state. The Last Act of Love, her first book, movingly details the harrowing events and the subsequent years of his slow death. Cathy became lost and drowned her torment in alcohol. But she also found books helped in her quest to escape from her thoughts. “The act of reading became a life raft, allowing me to stay afloat and keep my head above the water.”

I hope readers will enjoy it in the way that I enjoy books about reading, by agreeing and disagreeing with me and finishing it having been reminded of a few old favourites and tempted into something new.”

Looking back at her choice of reading matter, Cathy reflects in hindsight that she seemed to seek out stories of people living in the shadow of war. “The proximity of death can sharpen the senses, and the best war novels… are the ones where life has an added texture precisely because it is so fragile.”

Yes, this is a book about books, but it’s also about storytelling. Mingling with the stories she loved to read, is Cathy’s own deeply compelling story, brilliantly told. There’s friendship, romance, tragedy, “full of people encountering challenging situations and, usually, surviving them.”

“Books are a masterclass on how to carry on,” she says. These are powerful words to live by in these peculiar times.

FG: Dear Reader is a personal journey of your life in books. What was the appeal of writing about this aspect of your life, how did you go about it, and what do you hope readers will get from it?

CR: I started writing Dear Reader because I felt lonely and nostalgic for my time as a bookseller. I was trying to put on the page the types of conversations I used to have with my customers and capture how much I loved talking to strangers about books. It evolved into more of a journey and I hope readers will enjoy it in the way that I enjoy books about reading, by agreeing and disagreeing with me and finishing it having been reminded of a few old favourites and tempted into something new.

When you left London for Cornwall a few years ago, you decided to arrange your books chronologically, from your early reading years to the present day. What was the trigger?

I endlessly experiment with shelving solutions that don’t work or don’t last but that suit me for a while. I’ve yet to get a perfect system and my books rage out of control. I have towers next to my bed at the moment that I need to sort and redistribute. I often can’t find books that I know I own.

It’s a very inspiring selection and it made to want to read and reread many of the books you mentioned – and I must thank you for reminding me of my own Jean Plaidy and Adrian Mole years! The book list element of Dear Reader could be a guide for a nostalgia reading group, but the autobiographical chapters also contain a mix of moving, funny, tragic, painful and uplifting stories. How many books did you originally want to feature and how did you whittle it down?

At one point I was calling it ’52 books’ and was planning to reread a book a week for a year and write about it, but that felt a bit random. Some books that I love are not there because I edited out the chapter they’d belong in. So I was going to write about becoming sober, and Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes was key to that section, but I decided against it. And Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe is one of my favourite books of all time but I edited out a list of ‘letter’ books. And Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo blew my socks off but I’d already finished my manuscript by the time I read it. It was difficult to know when to stop. I also had a rule about not having books by friends but then I broke it a few times. So it is not a definitive list, but that was important to me too. I wasn’t trying to be authoritative, exhaustive, completist or bossy. It’s more a set of invitations.

Are you a list-maker, a diarist or both?

Both!

Many readers have found lockdown and the coverage of the pandemic affecting their ability to concentrate on reading for pleasure. Tell us about your own lockdown experience.

I was watching too much news at the start of it all. I do know that spending too much time on social media destroys my attention span. It is highly addictive and crashes my mood. I needed to get away from it all and the best side-effect of digitally detoxing is that reading is blissful when my brain isn’t trying to get me to go pick up my phone for a dopamine rush off the blue lights of twitter. It certainly isn’t good for us to be hooked into the news cycle feeling we need to witness and comment on everything. The channels have done a good job of convincing us we need to ‘have our say’ but it just reduces us to traffic, really. I don’t like feeling I’m adding to the noise and confusion. We’re in a version of hell where we see the worst of humanity up front and then have to buy stuff or look at cat videos to make ourselves feel better. I try to step off the treadmill and read crafted long-form narrative instead and I’m not at all surprised when people who spend a lot of time on the socials say they can’t read or write. The one follows the other.

Sales of apocalyptic books have soared in recent months. Has the lockdown affected the types of books you’ve been reading?

I’ve always been keen on apocalypse fiction and I’ve felt I’m living in the first chapter of an apocalypse novel for a few years now. Lockdown mainly affected my reading because of home schooling and spending even more time than usual reading with my son. We’ve just read The Hunger Games triliogy and we are about to start on Noughts and Crosses. I’m also wondering what he’d make of Orwell. I feel like rereading Animal Farm as there is a lot of ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ opinion flying around the world at the moment.

You mention that when you make a new friend you wonder what sits on their shelves. Have you had any Zoom revelations? And what would you say about the desire of politicians to appear booky during TV interviews from home?

I don’t blame them for thinking about it when they get pounced on or if they don’t. You can’t fake being a reader, though. I do love the way Nicola Sturgeon talks about books. She is so genuine. And Barack Obama is a real reader. In my own set-up, the best Wi-Fi is in the corner of the house by my husband’s bookcase so I do all my interviews in front of books that are not up my street at all – lots of natural history and some of it in Dutch.

I’ve always found friends in books. In real life, I often found other children cruel and frightening and was scared I would ‘show myself up’ which was the great sin growing up in Yorkshire.”

You talk about reading helping you cope through difficult times in childhood, for example at school when a teacher was mean to you it conjured up Amy’s experience with the limes in Little Women. What is it about caring about characters who face hardship that provides comfort?

I’ve always found friends in books. I really love the girls in Little Women, and Anne Shirley, and the Narnia children. In real life, I often found other children cruel and frightening and was scared I would ‘show myself up’ which was the great sin growing up in Yorkshire. I always felt understood and forgiven by fictional characters who were making their own mistakes and learning to survive them.

As mental health becomes a greater challenge in our modern times, how can reading help sufferers and what would be your recommendations to the government and learning institutions?

I think we need to completely overhaul education. The current system seems almost intentionally designed to create anxious children, stressed teachers and unhappy parents. The emphasis on benchmarking and tests is hideous and they use horrible jargon to describe ‘learning outcomes’ that makes the creative part of me want to shrivel and die. Beyond that, mental health is complex and I’m wary of making blanket recommendations as what works for me might not for others.

Your brother Matty’s accident, and his death a few years later, was life-changing for you. How were you able to find any solace through reading?

Well, I was able to escape from myself and my life which was really important. People often turn their nose up at the notion that reading is a form of escapism but I think it is crucial and have so often employed reading to get me through difficult situations and provide a bit of respite. Lots of people can’t read when depressed or grieving but I always can, though I tend to reread rather than go for anything new.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively is a book that crops up time and again throughout Dear Reader. Why it is so important to you?

I’m not even fully sure. I love the scope of it. A historian who is dying drifts in and out of consciousness and composes a history of the world, from the mud to the stars. I do love books which are both specific and universal, which this one is. And the writing is just beautiful. I may well be reading it on my own death bed.

The psychology of reading for pleasure has been important in your career, from selling books to developing literacy skills. How did you go about building confidence as readers in prisoners you worked with?

People have often had horrible experiences of education and think of themselves as ‘not a reader’ so I have always focused on trying to help people feel comfortable and that they are allowed to have opinions. A lot of emergent adult readers think that if they don’t like something it is their fault. The most important thing is to know that if someone has had an awful time at school, they won’t see reading as a comfort and joy but may well have experienced it as a source of humiliation and worry. That all takes a bit of unpicking. Talking about stories and themes is a good way in and the magic starts to happen when what happens in the books makes someone share a story about themselves…

You reread favourite books such as Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pride and Prejudice. With an increasing number of new books being published every year, what is the lure of an old favourite? And do you find that your perspectives change as you reread them at different stages of your life?

I do love rereading and, yes, a book often reveals more of itself to me as I age. I need to have a lot of energy for something new whereas I can sink into an old favourite like I would curl up in a comfy armchair.

This year, the Covid-19 backlog resulted in over 600 new books being published on a single day in September, proving a challenge for booksellers, publicists, debut writers and book critics. Are there too many books being published in the UK generally? And what are your feelings as a writer being published during this avalanche?

The eternal problem of the book industry is that there are more good books than than there are readers and it is terrifying how few books succeed. As a writer I always try to feel entitled to nothing and treat everything good that happens as though it is a delightful surprise. It makes me go a bit crazy if I get too involved in sales figures. I just hope my book will find its way to some readers who will appreciate it and beyond that I try not to worry too much about it.

Excluding the blogosphere, books are being covered in fewer and fewer outlets. Newspapers are shedding staff and there are no mainstream arts shows on TV that give books a platform. How would you like to see books and writers promoted to a wider audience?

Of course I’d love to see more books coverage and I do think it could be less stuffy without being dumbed down. TV does seem to think that you need celebrities to sell books. I remember the beginning days of Richard & Judy and that was a great thing.

In your bookselling days you managed book launches and events with authors. I have to confess I’ve often found these events rather bland. In a post-Covid world, how would you like to see bookshop events evolve?

I know what you mean but I hope my events are never bland. I don’t think authors should do them unless they enjoy it. I always try to make my audiences feel that they are part of an experience, not just being performed at from a stage.

Are there any platforms and podcasts you particularly recommend?

I love the books bits on The High Low podcast – it was such a thrill when they talked about A Manual for Heartache – and I adore How to Fail With Elizabeth Day which is not strictly about books but she interviews a lot of authors. The episodes with Sathnam Sanghera and Jessie Burton are wonderful. Nikesh Shukla is doing a podcast next year to coincide with his excellent memoir Brown Baby and I’m looking forward to that.

There is a lot of shame knocking about on social media and I doubt it is helpful. Twitter feels like a place where there is little room for nuance or compassion.”

You talk about the sense of belonging that reading can inspire. The Black Lives Matter movement led to people in the publishing industry publicly beating themselves up about a lack of diversity. Are the media and entertainment industries right to do this?

Well, there needs to be change. It’s interesting you say ‘beating themselves up.’ There is a lot of shame knocking about on social media and I doubt it is helpful. Twitter feels like a place where there is little room for nuance or compassion. A few years ago I thought social media was democratising but now I’m frightened of it. All development change is uncomfortable, of course, and as a society we need to get better at tolerating that discomfort but I worry about all users, from the people who feel under pressure to represent and the people managing corporate social media accounts who are probably quite junior and can end up at the sharp end.

There were a few days in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing when publishers tried to outdo each other on social media by posting images of all the books by black authors they were publishing or personally reading. Was it cringeworthy or will good come out of it?

I have to largely stay off social media because it makes me insane. I’ve noticed how often well-intentioned ideas go sour really quickly on Twitter. There can be something excrutiating about white people offering their non-racist credentials but it was exhilarating to see books by black authors top the charts and lots of that is driven by recommnendation. I read Black and British by David Olusoga because I saw a tweet about it from his editor and I’m very glad I did. And glad I spent my time immersing myself in a lengthy, well-researched, well-crafted narrative rather than stay glued to Twitter in a fascinated paralysis watching people fall out with each other over how to best respond to what surely is one of the great issues of our age. I do think my understanding of the legacy of slavery has been shaped by reading fiction, including Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, The Long Song by Andrea Levy and The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins. I didn’t tweet about that, though.

French is your second language and reading in French motivated you to live in France for a short spell. Do you still read in French? And where do books in translation currently fit into your reading?

Ah, I am sad that my French is so rusty! My husband is Dutch and for every Dutch word I learn, a French word falls out the other side. I love reading fiction in translation and part of the pleasure of judging the Dublin Literary Award was reading lots of it. I have a yen to reread HHhH by Laurent Binet and I only own it in French so maybe that will encourage me.

Finally, which books do you have on the go right now?

A powerful memoir called Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey and I am about to reread Elena Ferrante for a panel I’m doing. My memory is so awful these days that I struggle to remember books I have read recently though I could tell you all about Little Women and Moon Tiger!

 

Cathy Rentzenbrink has lived in Cornwall, Yorkshire and London an recently returned to Cornwall, where she lives with her family and works as a writer and journalist. She is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling memoir The Last Act of Love (2016), which was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize and selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, and A Manual for Heartache (2017; both Picador). Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books is published in hardback, eBook and audio download by Picador.
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Author portrait © Peter Flude

Farhana Gani is a freelance writer and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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