It was about a little girl searching for the perfect birthday gift for her mother. She seeks suggestions from a series of animals – her toys. Finally, the perfect idea presents itself: the girl bakes her mother a cake, as the toys look on.
The final page of the book featured a recipe for the simplest of sponges. “Will we make one too?” my mum asked when I showed it to her. The next day, I helped her measure flour, sugar, eggs, butter, as she read aloud from the recipe. An hour later, from the oven emerged a wondrously warm, sugary-smelling creation.
That book had made this marvellous thing happen? It was like magic. I wanted more.
Back then our town had only a small public library. But as country kids, my six brothers and sisters and I were invited to participate in an outreach program run by the state library in Adelaide. We filled out forms, ticking our ages and subject interests. Once a month thereafter, an anonymous city librarian chose four books for each of us, sending the parcels by train. Our father – the local stationmaster – would phone to say they’d arrived. Over to the station we’d go, thrilled at the chance to be his “real” customers. Back home, we’d unwrap our brown paper and corrugated cardboard bundles.
I’d ticked every box on my form, so I never knew quite what might lie inside. Once, I received a guide to raising newts. Another time, a Biggles trilogy. (I’d ticked both the ‘Boy’ and ‘Girl’ boxes.) I read them all regardless, and my siblings’ books too.
Soon after, Mum got a job running our local library. Another miracle. Borrowing limits were instantly lifted. After-hours access was ours. I discovered three shelves of musty-smelling hardback Enid Blytons. I didn’t so much read them as climb inside them. I was that little girl sitting on an old chair that sprouted wings. I lived in that big Faraway Tree, dodging Dame Washalot’s water, hearing the clank of the Saucepan Man. I solved crimes in Dorset, rowed across to Kirrin Island, disguised myself to fool the local village bobby.
I moved on to other shelves in the library. I was an ordinary kid in an Australian country town, but I lived a different life with every book I read. I’d climb up to my favourite reading spot (the tin roof of our family house, tucked behind a chimney for shade) and be transported far from home. I time-travelled. I lived during the American civil war, in colonial Australia, on an island in Canada. In reality, I’d never been beyond Adelaide, but through books I was travelling the world.
I read descriptions of snow and tried to imagine how it might feel. (I would be 19 and living in London before I found out.) I read about pea-souper fogs while above me the daily sky was blue and clear. Year after year, book after book, my mind filled with stories, kaleidoscopic views conjured by my imagination, all sparked by lines of words.
When I first moved to Ireland with my Irish husband as a 26-year-old – 26 years ago – books were also my passport into Irish life. Reading novels by Maeve Binchy, William Trevor, Molly Keane and Edna O’Brien helped me decipher Irish society. In Dublin now, if I’m homesick for Australia, I reach for an Australian novel. Books by Robert Drewe, or Jane Harper, or Garry Disher instantly bring me back under an Australian sun, breathing in Noosa sea air or the sharp scent of country gums. If I’m planning a holiday in a different country, I seek out novels set in my destination. Donna Leon’s Venetian detective series. Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh books.
But like everyone else, I find myself too often lured from book reading by the instant gratification of my smartphone and iPad. I’ve had to make a conscious decision to remain a book lover. Deliberately make time for them. I’ve banned my smartphone from the bedroom. I carry a book in my handbag. I make myself read whenever I can, rather than automatically turn to a screen. It’s not always easy but I always feel better for it.
That’s another benefit of reading. It doesn’t just take us out of the everyday. It also calms us, feeds our minds, our hearts, our inner lives. Reading opens up the world to us. It helps us be whoever we want to be.
• Australian Reading Hour 2017 will take place on Thursday 14 September at an hour of your choosing. Monica McInerney’s most recent book, The Trip of a Lifetime, is published by Penguin Random House.