Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink: joyful exuberant bookishness

Cover image of Dear Reader, by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Everyone who loves reading will recognise the sense of joy that emanates from the pages of Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir Dear Reader.

Joy is what she recalls from a childhood when every book transported her to an enchanted world and rainy afternoons could be transformed by the chance to read.

The joy of reading continued into adolescence with the relish for school stories, Narnia and Biggles replaced by devotion for Jean Plaidy, Agatha Christie and Jilly Cooper. And further still into adulthood when, as a temporary Christmas sales assistant at the Waterstones branch in Harrods, her conversations with customers were so animated, her boss thought she was gossiping with her friends.

A Reader’s Journey

Dear Reader charts Cathy Rentzenbrink’s life as a reader, from her earliest childhood memories through her years in bookselling, to the present day and the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition to be an author. Woven throughout are her reflections on the power of books; whether to change the course of a life, spark happiness or provide comfort and succour at times of distress.

I find it consoling to be reminded that I am not alone, that everything I feel has been felt before; that everything I struggle with has been perplexing others since the dawn of time.

In Cathy’s case, books became her lifeline when her brother was fatally injured in a car accident. Her friends couldn’t help because at 17 years old, they knew little of suffering, but in the novels of Mary Welsey she found people who had encountered challenging situations and survived. Reading them helped her realise she was not alone.

Often people can be a bit snooty at the idea of books as a form of escapism, but I believe this is one of the greatest powers of literature: to comfort, to console, to allow a tiny oasis of – not exactly pleasure, but perhaps we could think of it as respite, when we feel we might otherwise drown in a sea of pain.

Life Lessons From Books

All through Dear Reader, Cathy Rentzenbrink connects events in her life with books she was either reading at the time, or from which she could draw inspiration.

As an eight year old for example, she was punished in school by being made to stand on a chair in front of the whole class. She drew consolation by remembering how Amy in Little Women had been similarly shamed.  

Decades later, when launching the Quick Reads initiative she told the audience at the House of Commons that reading books had taught her how to behave in fine places.

I joked that … thanks to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, I’d never drunk the contents of a finger bowl, because Esther Greenwood had done exactly that the first time she encountered one.

Dear Readers United

Dear Reader didn’t wow me initially. In fact it put it aside after just a few pages thinking it was going to be essentially just list after list of book titles, separated only by a few reflective comments.

But I’m glad I decided to give it a second chance. It wasn’t simply her insights about the reading experience and our responses to literature, that won me over. It was Cathy’s personality.

She made the book feel like a chat with my best bookish mate. So many times I’d find myself smiling and nodding in recognition over her anecdotes.

I’ve never tried to read while walking as Cathy once did, ending up on the pavement with a cut knee (kudos to her that just wanted to carry on reading the Minette Walters!). But we’re alike in finding it hard to resist the urge to start conversations with strangers when I see them reading in waiting rooms and on public transport. And though I don’t have anything like Cathy’s depth of knowledge, just like her I often have to say something when I hear customers in a bookshop talking about one of my favourite books.

I loved the way Cathy Rentzenbrink talked about her father and his own experience with literature. He’d left school at a young age, unable to read or write. But when the law changed and he had to complete his own shift reports, he signed up for literacy evening classes. In later years their phone conversations would be peppered with discussions about the books he was reading.

Eclectic Reading

There was no snobbery about her father’s choice of books, she recounts. It didn’t occur to him to judge books on their literary merit or the gender of the author.

That open attitude also comes through in Cathy’s own reading choices. Her recommendations – grouped in themes like Books about Writers; Books About Reading, Mothers and Children; Posh People Behaving Badly – range widely across genres and eras.

You’re as likely to find A Little Life by Hanya Yanaghira, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes and Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively as Rivals by Jilly Cooper and the Harry Potter series in her lists of favourite books.

She’s also a big re-reader. I thought I was doing well having read Middlemarch at least six times but Cathy beats me hands down with Rebecca (read 10 or even 20 times) and Pride and Prejudice (50 times).

Would I recommend Dear Reader? Absolutely. It was one of my #20booksofsummer books and proved to be a gloriously exuberant, funny, but also moving account of a life-long love for books. It will chime with everyone who recognises the excitement of beginning a new novel or how it feels to be so deeply engrossed in a book, nothing – absolutely nothing – else matters.

Dear Reader : The Comfort And Joy Of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink – End Notes

Cathy Rentzenbrink grew up in Yorkshire but has now returned to Cornwall where she was born. She worked in bookshops, for The Bookseller journal and on literacy campaigns via The Reading Agency and Quick Reads.

Her first book The Last Act of Love was a reflection on the life and death of her brother. Her second, A Manual for Heartache is a broader look at sorrow, anguish, despair, loss. Dear Reader, her third book, was published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, in September 2020

Cathy blogs at cathyreadsbooks.com and tweets @catrentzenbrink.

With thanks to Picador and NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

24 thoughts on “Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink: joyful exuberant bookishness

  • September 21, 2020 at 9:04 pm
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    This sounds like a lovely book, perfect for some cozy winter reading.

    Reply
  • September 20, 2020 at 5:37 pm
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    I have an ARC of this and it sounds like I really need to read it soon!

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  • September 20, 2020 at 12:41 pm
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    I do love the sound of this one, a book about books and the joy of reading is always a temptation. So, glad you found it worth persevering with.

    Reply
  • September 20, 2020 at 7:58 am
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    There’s something alluring and yet cautious about books about reading, there’s the possibility of familiarity and potential nostalgia and the risk of alienation or disinterest and the joy of discovery, adding to the TBR. I do love reading the reviews, waiting for that possible future moment when I might decide, yes this one’s for me.

    Reply
    • September 20, 2020 at 10:54 am
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      Reading the lists that come with each chapter certainly reminded me of books I loved myself. Inevitably there were many I’ve not read but which I now want to. So yes familiarity and discovery played out here

      Reply
  • September 20, 2020 at 4:58 am
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    I don’t enjoy other people’s opinions – well that was how I planned to commence, but I do enjoy bloggers’ opinions, so whose opinions is it that I don’t enjoy? Experts maybe! I really dislike end of year lists of favourite books in the newspapers for instance. Perhaps it’s just that I can argue (strike that out) discuss with fellow bloggers but opinions in print or on the radio leave me unable to respond. (i would have Harry Potter in my favourites but not the Julian Barnes).
    Like the new layout. I’m on my PC now but I checked on my phone, where you are now easily readable whereas before you were not.

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    • September 20, 2020 at 11:10 am
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      I can cope with the end of year favourites from the reviewers in newspapers better than I can the lists they put together where “famous people” nominate their favourites. I’m always highly suspicious of those – did they really read that book or are they choosing something based on their publicists’ advice about what would give the best image???

      Great to hear the adjustment I made to the blog has worked. I didn’t know there was a problem until Kim alerted me. In the end it was just a small tweak to the settings…..

      Reply
  • September 20, 2020 at 4:23 am
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    I have just reserved a copy of this book. It seems there’s a real trend in books about reading and books at the moment – I recently read Dear Reader by Tegan Bennett Daylight and have some others similar in my reading stack.

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  • September 20, 2020 at 1:46 am
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    As much as I love reading and books, I never get on with books about books. I think it’s because they’re always written from a Northern hemisphere perspective and talk about books, particularly childhood ones, I’ve never read.

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    • September 20, 2020 at 11:01 am
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      I wonder why northern hemisphere writers are dominating and southern hemisphere are not showing an interest in that kind of book. Any ideas?

      Kate’s comment mentions an Australian author who has just had a similar book to Dear Reader published. Interestingly though, the extract in the Guardian mentions many of the same children’s books as Cathy Rentzenbrink.

      Reply
  • September 20, 2020 at 12:28 am
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    This becomes available here next week so I have ordered it. I love these kinds of books.

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    • September 20, 2020 at 10:59 am
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      I choose which ones to read very carefully – some of them are very flimsy concepts.

      Reply
  • September 20, 2020 at 12:23 am
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    “Books became her lifeline when her brother was fatally injured in a car accident. Her friends couldn’t help because at 17 years old, they knew little of suffering, but in the novels of Mary Welsey she found people who had encountered challenging situations and survived. Reading them helped her realise she was not alone.”
    I feel sorry for non readers who are enduring the pandemic without the solace of reading…

    Reply
    • September 20, 2020 at 10:57 am
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      If you used newspapers as a gauge to what’s going on, you’d think everyone was using their time at home to paint, learn a language, play a musical instrument, save the planet. But the reality is that there are many, many people who have no interests/hobbies that they can turn to for comfort. And if they have no computer access they are ignored.

      Reply
      • September 21, 2020 at 11:29 pm
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        Ha! That’s so different to here in Australia. If you took any notice of our papers, you’d think the entire city of Melbourne was suffering clinical depression. When in fact most of us are just getting on with it.
        But #musing perhaps I should add saving the planet to my To Do list…

        Reply
  • September 19, 2020 at 7:28 pm
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    Skimmed your review as I’ll be posting one myself soon but I think we both agree that we loved this one!

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  • September 19, 2020 at 6:17 pm
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    I don’t think it helped that I was reading it as an e-book – if it had been physically in my hands I could have easily browsed forward and seen it was so much more than just book lists

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  • September 19, 2020 at 6:03 pm
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    I keep hearing about this one and it does sound good – thank you for sharing about your initial reservations, however, as that will I’m sure help people who reach a similar point.

    Reply

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