When I studied Children’s Culture at Stockholm University, I was once asked to name a book that had been significant for me as a child.
My answer came spontaneously, instinctively, with a speed that surprised even me. It was an emotional answer. I felt immediately which book I wanted to tell about. It occurred to me that, with more time to think, I probably would have changed my answer, intellectualized it. But this answer was in my body. The book was The Children of Noisy Village, by Astrid Lindgren.
We were asked to describe the experience of reading the book. I remember how I felt when I read about the growling dog and the angry shoemaker, and how frightening angry dogs and shoemakers could be. And also that no matter the dangers of dogs and shoemakers, we have to be brave and go about our business. Shoes need repairing sometimes; shoes have to be dropped off, and then picked up again. The road to the shoemaker’s went past the dog. Everything was angry and dangerous. I was just as scared as the children in the book, and I felt they saved me by being just as scared as I was. I remember how Olle befriended Svipp, the angry dog. And I remember knowing that I too, would have been kind to the dog. Because I wanted a dog. I ached with wanting a dog. I saved up money for a dog. In real life, I stopped for every dog I saw. I was scared – not of anger, but of loneliness. A dog would save me from the thing I couldn’t face and couldn’t feel. My father was dead, and I had no language for it.
I thought and thought about the story of Olle and how he got his dog. I remember reading the chapter over and over again. I wanted to tame a dog too, turn it from angry to gentle. I saw my chance in every dog I met. The dog who barked at the gate on the way to my grandmother’s became the dog above all others. He came with a gentle little old lady and an equally gentle little old man. I used to sit in their kitchen, swinging my legs on a chair, eating buns and drinking juice. The dog lay at my feet. It was a scene straight from the pages of my book about Noisy Village. That I one day would have a dog of my own, because I was a friend to animals, and dogs in particular, was a dream I held on to through my whole childhood.
When I talked about this chapter at university, I thought it was the chief point of the entire book; that the book was mostly about getting the dog. Later, we were supposed to find our significant books and re-read them. I read the short chapter. To my surprise, all of the things I had thought and believed were not in it. It was a different story. It came home to me, in a very concrete way, that I had written myself into the story, between the lines. I had made things up. I was both reader and co-conspirator. There is plenty of room between Astrid Lindgren’s lines: large, generous empty spaces for thinking and feeling. My story was only mine. My reading experience included me. This taught me about the spaces in texts. It taught me something about myself: my yearning, my imagination. The book had helped me to feel. My still-wordless grief could borrow vocabulary and dreams from stories. The story gave me inner pictures that blended with my world and made my life a little easier to comprehend.
Today I still talk to books. I need that space between the lines to see inside a book. I need that empty room to feel, think, and reflect. Later in life I understood why I read. I was reading my way to a father. If you have no father, you build one for yourself through books. I can read my way to a subsitute father. Reading can answer my questions about who a father can be and what a father can do. As an adult, when I read Ulf Stark’s chapter book, En liten bok om kärlek (A little story about love; 2015), the sense of invitation remains the same: to stand in the hall with Father’s empty shoes, and breathe in Father’s smell from his empty overcoat. I step in and stand on the lines of sentences and draw a deep breath. I read, I think, I feel – everything the empty space can hold.
To read is to be given space, space for the things you cannot face and for the vocabulary that got a little crumpled. Space for words about the sadness that took hold of you and the sense of security the story brought: the story, that other mirror, reflecting a tiny bit of hope.
Ambassador for Reading