Can books really save your life?

There is a particular type of memoir that is described as “the child saved by books.” The author faces various childhood traumas and discovers that reading offers escape or redemption or the key to a future passion and calling.

I found this useful little label in a Times Literary Supplement Review by Carolyne Larrington examining three academic memoirs literal (Mad about Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate; Fierce appetite by Elizabeth Boyle; and love and romance by Christina Lupton).

Shannon Burns was drawn to pessimistic writers.

Shannon Burns was drawn to pessimistic writers.Credit:

But Larrington’s example of a “child saved by books” book is a different treatise, undercurrent, in which Natasha Carthew recalls a life of abject poverty in rural Cornwall. She found solace in the landscape and the mobile library.

However, the more I delve into it, the more the concept of ‘children saved by books’ memoirs doesn’t seem entirely accurate, at least among Australian writers. Shannon Burns certainly had to save a lot. his memories childhood vividly depicts a long nightmare in which he jumps from one dysfunctional family to the next. As a teenager he discovered literature. Does it offer salvation?

Maybe in a sneaky way. For the young Burns feels drawn to pessimistic writers. The ancient Greeks show him that he is part of the greater history of human trials. He’s coming to Hardy’s Judas the Obscure and the Russians. “I will never have any connection with my father, but I will always be able to read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy,” he tells himself. Is that enough? “You can live partially on books and the morbid recognition they offer, but you cannot thrive.”



The comfort of books is being sought in less dramatic ways during the pandemic lockdowns. Carmel Bird’s memoirs Treacherous is a bewitching and lyrical meander through the books in her home library, starting with her 1946 edition Tales of Uncle Remusthe first book she ever read herself, to Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Bridges and peacocks are recurring themes in a woven magic carpet of memory, description and observation. It’s not just happy nostalgia: as a child, her books often scared her.

Books are formative for Bird. “People sometimes talk through the lens through which an author sees the world presented to a reader – in this case, my main lens is the books I’ve read.” I often didn’t know where Treacherous took me with them, but I was very happy to go with them.

Another rereading project that became a memoir is that of Ruth Wilson The Jane Austen remedy, surprisingly the first book by an 89-year-old. It begins at a difficult moment in her life: she keeps dreaming about losing her voice and decides to retire from her husband and live alone. Can books really save your life?

Jaclyn Diaz

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