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Book Review: Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Just under a year ago, during a pretty bleak January, I set myself a single challenge – to read at least 52 books this year, or, a book a week.

It’s what started this whole blogging experiment off – more on blogging another time – this post is all about book 52, Dear Reader, and the books that came before it.

I completed my challenge at the weekend.

I had no plan at the start of the year over what I was going to read and when, I just went with whatever took my fancy at the time rather than stick to themes or books that were in keeping with season, however as I edged closer and closer to the finish line, book 52 needed to be poignant. 

Dear Reader fitted that perfectly.

“For as long as she can remember, Cathy Rentzenbrink has lost and found herself in stories. Growing up she was rarely seen without her nose in a book and read in secret long after lights out. When tragedy struck, books kept her afloat. Eventually they lit the way to a new path, first as a bookseller and then as a writer. No matter what the future holds, reading will always help”.

Dear Reader summed up how I feel about reading and books, Cathy Rentzenbrink’s love letter to books is nothing short of perfect. She takes us through her life in reading from being a child who adored The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe, to tearing through Anne of Green Gables, to the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, to Agatha Christie, to Margaret Atwood and Moon Tiger to name a few.

She’s a girl and woman who gave stories her full attention, the characters drew her in and in some instances led her to making life choices – like breaking up with boyfriend after realising his wasn’t the voice she’d want to hear when she was dying, a question asked in James Runcie’s The Colour of Heaven.

It’s a story of how books were always there for her as a source of comfort through some incredibly sad moments, including the death of her older brother. It’s about how books helped her to better understand herself and the world.

“Above all, I find it consoling to be reminded that I am not alone, that everything I felt has been felt before, that everything I struggle with has been perplexing others since the dawn of time. My favourite books are universal. They illuminate my own life as well as showing me the lives of others and leave me changed, my worldview expanded” Cathy Rentzenbrink

I too have grown up with a love of reading – though I am not as prolific a reader as Cathy. I loved fairy tales. I remember one of my first books being called Peace at Last about the father bear who couldn’t get to sleep because there was too much noise everywhere. I can picture books I was given like the hardback of Wind in the Willows and collections of abridged classics. I loved Oliver Twist and like Cathy didn’t realise that I was reading an abridged version and that actually Dickens is long, dull and grim (though I do like Great Expectations). I have hazy memories of visiting Rawtenstall library and signing up to the mobile when I got older. I enjoyed having to do book reviews in English lessons at secondary school. I loved English at school and then at college and then at university.

I remember growing up with Judy Bloom books, which pretty much nailed the trials of being teenage girl – especially Are you there God, it’s me Margaret. I remember a lot of books I read in my early teens Flour Babies, The Charlie Barber Treatment, Skinny Melon and Me, Whistle Down the Wind, Goodnight Mr Tom, The Silver Sword.

I fell in love with To Kill a Mockingbird in secondary school, it’s one I always go back to. There’s something new I take from it every single time and still well up at ‘Hey Boo’. 

If I’m bored I’ll reach for a book and it really doesn’t matter what it is, I read Stan Ternant’s autobiography one summer, I think it was the only thing I could find that I hadn’t read, it was hilarious.

When I worked in the local corner shop during university holidays, I always had a book behind the counter to get me through the lulls in the afternoon, it helped me make a dent in my reading list when I tackled The Dubliners, Hard Times (eugh), The French Leuitanants Woman, The Colour Purple (another favourite), Jane Eyre, Heart of Darkness and Tess of the D’urbvilles. Reading for university never felt like work, it was something I enjoyed doing, discovering a new story.

I find something comforting about getting lost in a book, I like building images in my head, learning something or having the chance to see the world differently. When I want to relax it’ll be a book I pick up, whether it’s a new story or one I’ve read countless times.

This year, it’s been a huge help. It’s helped me completely switch off from the news (and kept me off social media) in a way television never quite manages, if I’m fully engrossed and invested in a book, there’s no room anything else.

It’ll calm me down, I can forget the growing list of things that need doing – I actually finished Dear Reader on the 19th December after feeling stressed that I hadn’t bought a single Christmas present and couldn’t see where I’d find the time. After a morning reading in bed, that stress disappeared. I’m writing this and remembering my favourite books ahead of my final shift of 2020 and it’s unlikely to be an easy, chilled day (damn you Brexit). A book will bring moments of solace in a world gone mad.

I’ve been asked many times where I find the time to read, quite simply it’s my favourite pastime, it’s just something I do, there’s something to be said for knowing there’s a new adventure to be found in the pages of a book and knowing it can take you anywhere.

“Reading has saved my life, again and again, and has held my hand through every difficult time” Cathy Rentzenbrink

I have to agree with Cathy, it’s the comfort in knowing that no struggle is unique, there’s been millions of people before us who’ve dealt with same things.

The 52 books have read this year have made me smile, laugh, think, cry and have expanded my worldview. They’ve taken me to the cemetery of forgotten books, to 19thcentury Sri Lanka, to the second world war, back to Palestine and to Mount Olympus. They’ve reminded that people are fundamentally good and that even when we’re seeing the worst of humanity, there’s always kindness to be found.

They’ve brought peace and comfort and kept me entertained for hours on end in a year when everything stopped.

Dear Reader is a must for all book lovers, it’ll remind you of stories you love (like clambering through a wardrobe to Narnia), you’ll relate to it, you’ll smile and remember why you love to read. It may even push to chase your own dreams.

“We are all in the gutter, but books allow us to see the stars. And I know that whatever else may happen in my life, I will love talking to strangers about books. Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved books. She still does. She always will”. Cathy Rentzenbrink

Merry Christmas everybody, here’s to a better 2021 and another year of getting lost in books xxxxx

radiosarahc View All

Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm

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