One of my earliest memories is of reading.
I am sitting on my father’s lap after supper, and he’s holding up a copy of The Argus while I spell my way along the front page headline. I’m confused. Why do they write so much about gnats? They’re not important, they’re just irritating.
You have to keep your mouth closed when you walk through a cloud of gnats at sunset.
You have to be careful not to breathe because there’s nothing worse than a gnat flying up your nose and laying its eggs deep inside you.
I remember my father telling everyone that story, and how they laughed at me. By the age of three (I started reading very early) I had learnt that the Nats, who would dominate the front pages for the next three decades, were a huge irritation and we needed to pinch our noses when they came near and swat them away.
Despite her job in the children’s section of the Lansdowne Public Library in Cape Town, Shirley Jansen appeared to not like children. She would inspect our hands when we arrived, and if they weren’t clean enough for her liking, she’d send us away. Fortunately, there was a tap in a nearby park, so we didn’t have to go all the way home again.
To this day, I am incapable of touching a book with dirty hands. I hate people who write in the margins and who turn down a corner of a page to mark their places. I find it hard to maintain friendships with people who leave open books face-down with their fragile spines screaming in pain.
Some of us can’t afford to feed our habits on new books alone; we desperately scour the shelves of every secondhand bookshop we pass.
There’s very little that’s worse than coming home with an armful of good books and finding out that they’ve been defaced by the previous owner.
Miss Jansen used to question me suspiciously when I returned books to the library long before the due date, checking if I had finished them and whether I understood what I had read.
During those conversations I began to figure out how books were written; and what I liked and didn’t like about them.
A few years after I joined the library, I had read every book for readers my age. I would always start reading as I walked home from the library. Although I fell off pavements often and once walked into a street pole, I never learned to wait until I got home.
After I’d read every book in the children’s section, my parents and Miss Jansen agreed she would select appropriate books as I made my way through the shelves of the main library.
My parents hated what they called “penny-ha’penny” books, the kind all my friends were reading. I had to read the classics, preferably the Russians, which slowed me down – I could no longer read a book a day.
Because of my parents and Miss Jansen I grew to love books – more than any other thing. I wanted to take everything I liked about them and use it in a book I would write one day.
Rossouw is a journalist at Business Day and has just had her first work of fiction published in African Violet and Other Stories, the anthology for the Caine Prize for African Writing, published by Jacana.
- African Violet is published by Jacana