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Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink: joyful exuberant bookishness

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.

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