Val Wood: Shelf-made chance to start a whole new chapter in life

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WHEN I was a child at primary school, every subject bar English eluded me. “A quiet, reserved girl. Could do better.” That seemed to be my epithet.

“What is in that head of yours Valerie?” one teacher decried and an older, not quite so reserved Val, might have remarked that there were more interesting things hidden away than he might have thought.

Books for instance, books that had been read and books waiting to be read as soon as I was let out of school. Stories to be imagined and written down.

I probably spent more time in my imagination than I ever did in learning lessons in school.

Reading was as natural to me as breathing. I can’t recall a time when I couldn’t read and one of my greatest pleasures was listening to my teacher reading from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.

I had a very clear picture in my head of Tom being told by Aunt Polly to whitewash the fence and his craftiness in allowing his friends to do it for him.

I read it for myself when I was old enough, as I did Huckleberry Finn, What Katy Did, Treasure Island, tales of derring do, and books about girls going to boarding school and having a spiffing time, not something that I could ever aspire to.

I read anything and everything, and then discovered Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women. I didn’t know then that I was reading literature. I only knew that this was the best book I had ever read and I’m quite sure that I was highly influenced by it, not only in my own writing much later, but by moving on to reading other classics, not, I hasten to add, as in reading Classics at university; that wasn’t to be my metier, but to Dickens, Austen and the Brontës.

I was given a new book every Christmas and I still have most of them; that’s the thing with books, a true reader won’t ever part with them, unless of course they are borrowed from a library and on my honour I always gave them back – reluctantly.

As a schoolgirl, I was unaware that such facilities were paid for by public funds, but for me, with my one book a year, libraries were a gift, an essential element of life. And my opinion hasn’t changed.

Libraries today, however, are not just places in which to browse or borrow books, although happily we can still do so; last year the library system issued 1.3 million titles.

Literature festivals raise the profile and widen the choice of reading 
when new authors are introduced alongside established authors who write the words we crave to read and World Book Night/Day is hugely popular.

Many libraries have IT suites and computers are available for research, for instance by using Encyclopaedia Britannica or Ancestry. Many older people who might never have used a computer can now surf the net or read the daily news online with the help of library staff, who are seen as helpful and approachable.

One such library is the Western in Hull. Built in 1895 it was the first public library to be built by the Hull Corporation.

A beautiful building, it has been given a magnificent renovation to include all of the above whilst retaining its original intention.

Another is Beverley Library; built in 1906 it was extended in 2007 and became The Treasure House, incorporating a museum, archive facility and home to the successful Beverley Literature Festival. The rising popularity of e-books that might once have been considered a threat, is viewed by librarians as an opportunity as more people access study and reading via digital mediums, smartphones, tablets etc and by providing these resources the libraries attract new visitors.

Reading can take readers into another world. I have travelled far with the books I have read; to China and Japan, New Zealand and New South Wales, to India and the Crimea without leaving my armchair. I have been a Geisha girl, a suffragette, a courtesan, a detective and have served time in prison and yet, conversely, have been none of these for on the whole I live a fairly quiet life.

Writers too travel great distances while not moving away from their desks, for we can learn our facts and research through books and the internet. Writing is also great therapy, just as reading is.

Through our fertile imagination it is possible to temporarily forget our own problems by creating and solving fictional ones. This I did during the years my late husband developed vascular dementia.

In effect I wore two hats. My carer’s hat and my writer’s hat. I’m quite used to being several people at the same time as I take on the persona of my characters, but never in my wildest imaginings did I think that being able to do so would be a lifesaver. Mine.

The issue of mental health and brain disease is difficult to discuss when you are caring for someone, for we are too close to it emotionally, but I have spoken publicly about dementia in an attempt to raise awareness of this progressive and under-funded life-limiting condition that like a thief in the night steals away the people we love and care for.

An inspirational concept I have recently heard of is a national Mood Boosting book list produced in conjunction with Macmillan Care. East Riding libraries are developing this scheme further into a reading group specifically for carers and the cared for, where recommended books have been found to be uplifting and mood enhancing.

What a marvellous idea and one that could be used by so many with debilitating illnesses or sorrow or who are struggling to contend with life’s difficulties of which there are many. For a little while why don’t we lose ourselves in a book?

• Castleford-born Val Wood writes historical romance novels. Her latest book, His Brother’s Wife, is published by Bantam Press, price £18.99.