I’m built of books. At first it was zoos and larks and boyish girls called Jo. In the school holidays, I’d read two or three in a day. I loved the brilliant Jennings, Gerald Durrell, Professor Branestawm, Angela Brazil, boarding school books. My sisters and I ran a lending library for the kids in our road. We had a stamp, with fiddly segments for the day/month/year. I imagined I’d collect lots of fines for late book return, but it didn’t work out like that.
Then into my Midlands Catholic home in the 70s came Paul Zindel, the American author writing for teenagers. YA, in its early days. I got them all out from Sutton Coldfield Library, over and over again. Zindel was so damn urbane, his books had kissing and sex and dudes with cool names and long hair and … am I misremembering? Did My Darling My Hamburger feature abortion? I checked and yes, a character has an abortion. Blimey. That slipped through the net. It confirmed my belief that Americans were so thrilling and precocious, this was nothing to them.
Then things got bloody. So came the formative read and laying it out like this now, I can see it was all rungs of a ladder. I remember the story because it became a film, I remember the cover because it became iconic, but if I don’t remember the words I remember the sense of it absolutely, and the feelings. They were what mattered.
This formative read is Jaws, by Peter Benchley.
A blockbuster is not what a person should chose to show their best self. It’s not a clever person’s book, is it? It doesn’t make you think, ooh she’s interesting. These choices should be deep or meaningful, or something not so damn populist. And it can’t have been good, it was made into a movie, and that only happens to schlocky mainstream writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, right? I’m being ironic, if you remember that thing on Twitter.
I was about 15, and Len Smith, a friend of my dad’s, handed me a copy of Jaws, almost covertly. My parents didn’t quite think it was suitable, even though I’d already read the abortion book, and at least dismemberment-by-shark wouldn’t lead to eternal damnation. I’d never read a book as fat as it, I’d never read a book like it in any way. Even the paper felt different, chalkier. It was like being handed some kind of symbol, something totemic. It was like being handed adulthood. (But not in a creepy way. That sounds much creepier than I intended.)
I didn’t think this was the kind of thing adults read. I think my parents were maybe snobbish, like people who don’t like shiny bits on covers, or don’t buy books from Smiths. The books on my parents shelves certainly weren’t tempting; they were thin orange spines, some theological or Small is Beautiful or Graham Greene. Nothing like this, nothing so common, with no higher purpose. Nothing that made my heart actually race, that made me swallow hard. I’d never read anything so physical, so un-metaphorical, or unfictional. I know. I’d never read a book before that so frightened me. And the flip side of that, I’d never known before how brilliant being frightened would feel. I didn’t know a book could creep into my subconscious, I didn’t know the images from a book would be as real as a film.
I’d felt things for books before, of course. Sadness or disappointment, or hopeful longing. You know. But the way this book tied a rope round my waist and pulled me towards the crushing wheel - that was new. The visceral bloody shock of it was revelatory.
I read into the night, curled around the book, lit by a shabby torch that flared fuzzily, under my nylon counterpane. And once I’d finished it, I started to search out other books like this, brilliant fat books that were frighteningly real.
This book shoved me, into the next part of my life. It was like being in The Graduate, where this book was Mrs Robinson. (Again, that sounds much creepier than I intended. I keep veering towards sexually laden imagery, I’m not sure why.) It contained boring discussion and detail and man talk and women in distress, and then the next page literally shredded people. I don’t think it contained a boyish kind of girl, a Jo.
So this is neat, how things turn out. My formative book is Jaws, and now I write about swimming. And if you do that, some of it is about fear, about how it feels to be out in the deep, about what lies beneath. And of course, I’ve read the book and seen the film. I know. Every time I need an image, it’s there. You know the one. And I’m always the body swimming, never the shark.
If you’re going to be built of books, you won’t be built entirely on larks. You’ve got to be prepared that some of them will be horror stories.
Jenny Landreth is a script editor and writer. Her book Swell, A Waterbiography is published by Bloomsbury. You can find her on Twitter @jennylandreth