it has turned her brain. Louisa M. Alcott wrote that in one of her novels (and no, it’s not from Little Women)
When I was little and before I went to school at the age of 6, I was the owner of a grand total of 2 picture books that a neighbour had given me. One was the Struwwelliese and the other was Struwwelpeter, so yes there was a theme. I hated the Struwwelpeter with a passion, I hid the book in the wardrobe because it terrified me. I cannot remember that, but my grandmother told me this when I was older. The Struwwelliese was the book of choice and it was read to me every night. I knew it off by heart and I can still remember it so well. Liese is called Struwwelliese because she is always unkempt, her stockings full of holes, lazy and prefers to sleep rather than be a good German girl with her hair neatly done, but then something happens that reforms her and she becomes a good girl. Despite the title suggesting that the books are from the same era, they are not. The Struwwelpeter is a series of morality tales for children from the mid-19th century that features 10 terrifying stories (the one with the matches gave me nightmares), the book was incredible popular. Mark Twain even translated it from German. Struwwelliese is the equivalent for girls, but only featuring one story (proving that girls are quick on the uptake), telling us to be more feminine and good girls by doing our chores and smile and all that. It was published in the 1950ies because after the war and all the hardships, girls had to be taught how to be proper girls again.
My grandmother told me much later when I asked her about it, that she had started to hate the book simply because of the repetition. I knew every word in the book and expected every word to be delivered just so, so after a while my grandmother refused to read the book, so I read it to myself over and over again.
Thankfully, I went to kindergarten and my lovely kindergarten teacher Tante Barbara read us stories every day and there were books to look at. Apparently, that’s what I did at kindergarten: Sit in the book corner or run around outside.
At 6, we start school in Germany and naturally, we are immediately taught to read. Now, you’d think that considering how much of a reader I am these days, that reading came easy to me. Far from it. It was not easy for me. My grandmother quickly got frustrated with me not being able to sound out even the simplest words, that she whacked the book over my head and hey presto I could read. This story was proudly recounted for decades to everyone. I am not so certain if the pain from the book on my head sorted my brain cells out or if it simply increased my adrenaline response (fear is a powerful teacher), well I let you be the judge of that.
At the end of the school year, we were taken to our village library which was housed in the village administrative center, an ugly concrete block, but a section was dedicated to books. We all got our library cards, were given a sheet with the opening times (Monday afternoons and Friday afternoons, the Wednesday morning session was no good to me). By then I was able to read perfectly, I read everything. My grandmother’s Heimatromane (sentimental stories mostly set in rural areas, all very predictable, there is a more literary section too, as e.g. Heidi would fall into that category, but my grandmother’s ones were all about hunters and women who tried to be pious but were dreadfully close to fall for the wrong guy) came under scrutiny, I read labels, the BILD Zeitung (which was the only newspaper that ever entered our house), the church pamphlet and recipes, which were on the back of almost any ingredient you bought in the 1970ies.
Needless to say, that I embraced the library with all my heart. I borrowed 5 books on a Monday and returned them on the Friday and took 5 books out for the weekend. I read every moment I could and my grandmother got increasingly annoyed at my reading. “You don’t hear anything when you read, I can call for you and call for you, it’s like you are gone.” Yes, I was, I was gone to hang out with my book friends.
There was the incident when I was excitedly telling stories about Lisa, Bosse, Lasse, Britta and Inga and sweets that could stick your mouth shut. My grandmother thought that these were real people that she did not know (we lived in a small village, so how she ever could think that is a mystery) and she was worried that I was starting to lose grip on reality although she described it differently. She tried to limit my reading time, but it did thankfully not last long and then it was just scathing remarks about me reading all the time.
The local librarian was brilliant, she realised quickly how much I loved the books and she suggested which ones to read next, brought books back from the main library for me and over the summer break she let me borrow a lot more books than was allowed.
I “blame” reading for everything that is good in my life. It saved me in my darkest hours, it gave me an escape from a reality, it enabled me to go to Gymnasium and to this day, books are always a part of my life.
I still like to use the library as much as I can. I still like to talk about the characters in the books I read. Books continue to turn my brain. In a good way. A very good way.