Ian Langworthy: Historian and Battlefield Guide
Well, it’s a book review, actually, but with a hefty dose of social history. The book is ‘No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy: Memoirs of a Working-Class Reader’ by Mark Hodkinson and published by Canongate.
If you love reading, if you love books, if you love words, then this book is definitely for you. It is the true story of a boy growing up in the 70s and 80s in a relatively deprived area of the northwest who finds a love of reading and collecting books.
From an early age, the author is a collector of ‘stuff’: all the things boys collected then (and before) – football cards, cigarette cards, PG Tips cards, stuff, and, as a teenager, books. His voyage of discovery is set against the backdrop of a working-class home where there are no books and no expectation of reading, of a poorly performing comprehensive school where expectations of pupils are generally low in an education system which ‘suited the few and failed the many.’
The author’s first ‘grown-up’ read is ‘Vet in Harness’ when he was 12, and that is the start of literally hundreds, no, thousands of books to grace his bookshelves. The book takes you on a ride through the author’s life with books as way markers set in the context of the times. The title of the book comes from a comment made by a bookseller when presented with a list of books given to the author. But this is not just a list of books, it is so, so much more. It is the story of life growing up in the 80s, enduring school, and facing all the disadvantages of children growing up in an area of ‘high unemployment and low self-worth.’
The author’s desire to collect and read was born in him, not nurtured or encouraged either at school or home. In fact, his father would ask him why he was reading when he could be outside playing. But he was no geek, and all the things that happened to him, or elements of them, have happened to any teenage boy. Although the author’s love of books oozes from every page, we also hear the music of the age, the arrival of the punk scene, being in a band, and the author’s love of the ‘Smiths’ and what the lead singer Morrissey and the lyrics of the band’s songs meant to him.
The narrative is interspersed with very warm, loving, and moving stories about ‘grandad,’ the author’s relationship with him, and how the family was affected by his mental health. These are very touching, telling, and personal insights into family life.
The book continues with the author’s ultimately successful struggle to become a journalist, eventually writing for the ‘Times’ and the ‘Guardian’ and becoming a successful author and publisher.
What I really loved about this book, however, was how it reminded me of my own childhood and youth – visiting the library, spending hours in the local bookshop, actually reading ‘War and Peace’ by Tolstoy (which is what attracted me to the title), and collecting, reading, and loving books ever since. It made me revisit my own bookshelves to remind myself of what I have kept and why.
This is not my story, although there are many elements that would be in it. It is not yours either, but it will, I think, make you look at your story and find similar way markers and memories.
It really is a good read.