It is an embarrassing fact that I didn’t learn to read until I was seven. I’m not sure whether this was laziness or the product of an indulgent father, but what I loved most of all was to be read to. I used to wake at horrible hours of the morning, grab my favourite Tintin book (in the original French), and pinch my father’s nose until he woke and groggily translated it for me. He was not allowed to skip anything, least of all Captain Haddock’s blistering barnacles. It was only when my step-mother bought me my first copy of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe that I got tired of waiting for others to get to the good bits, and started reading myself. As soon as I opened the book I felt transported by Lucy’s adventures in the land of the Wardrobe, the dreary skies of London were replaced by the winter scenes of Narnia, and the world became a place where ordinary children, like me, could make things happen.
C.S. Lewis was followed by The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and the brilliantly weird and powerful stories of Alan Garner. I discovered Margaret Mahy’s more quotidian but no less magical tales, The Changeover and The Haunting. And with a brief stop at St Clare’s, and the adventures of the Twins and assorted girls there, I arrived, a little ill-equipped, at secondary school, and the reading of ‘proper books’. This was very different from the stories I’d been loving—these were books read for instruction, so that essays could be written. It was all a bit like hard work. That is, until I was made to read Jane Eyre. I had started out bored by this insipid, irritatingly plain and correct girl, and it was all very old-fashioned. But Thornfield Hall and Mr Rochester got under my skin, and I found myself reading late at night to find how it would end. Once I finished the novel, I reread it, and then I read it again. Austen followed, and I revelled in the concerns of Lizzie, Jane, Emma, Eleanor and Anne. I caught up on my late start by reading everything I could—immersing myself in an author’s world helped me forget the difficulties of being a teenager in the 20th century, at least for a while.
Now, the written word defines much of my day—as a literary agent I have to read at least two manuscripts a week, plus anywhere between 5 and 10 first chapters or proposals. Though there is nothing to compare to the thrill of being the first to appreciate a new literary talent, it can be exhausting to only read unpublished books when there are still so many published ones I’ve not managed to start. When I do find the opportunity to sneak one in (on the bus, tube, train) I am reminded again how lucky I am to work in an industry where I can indulge my passion. Literature offers me a chance to escape, to learn and to gain perspective in a world that often makes very little sense