Culture Literature

‘This universal summer of discontent’: revisiting childhood books in lockdown

I travel the 540.6 miles on the Cross Country train back home. The summer has already felt too long, too hazy and disappointing – the image of melted ice cream in a stale cone – but it is only July 3rd. And now another two months spent back in my room (my childhood room) filled with crumpled pictures of a young Leonardo DiCaprio and picture books I haven’t had the heart to throw away, not just yet. 

No matter how dysfunctional my family can be sometimes, I’ve always felt it comforting to go home. A constant stream of tea and arguing with my sister. There are some parts which don’t feel the same: the ceilings are too low; I’ve outgrown the stack of clothes in my old wardrobe; I’ve realised how family life continues even though I’m gone now, away from the sycamore trees and non-existent phone signal. But the books, still piled high on the wobbling shelf, I haven’t outgrown (nor have I truly left them behind). 

Without thinking I often say that the books I read as a kid are my favourite: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tolbooth, S.E Hinton’s The Outsiders and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. It’s a brash statement and an easy answer to the question I was asked countless times when I decided to study Literature. But it is when I am home and back in that bedroom that I know why these are my favourite books. 

The long days spent at home in a place where nothing happens gives me time to finally read. I am filled with hope of at last being confronted with enough time to read Ulysses. These dried flowers hang over my window and an enamel coffee pot is precariously balanced just beneath. I pick up The Phantom Tolbooth, again. The story of Milo, who receives a tolbooth in the post which leads him into a land beyond that of his bedroom takes me by the hand and leads me back into a strange world of childhood imagination, a place I thought that I might never get the chance to exist within again now that I am twenty. It’s the first page which remains lodged in my mind:

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself— not just sometimes, but always. When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him—least of all the things that should have.

Being back home, for me, feels like this. Despite the ease of it all, I am restless.

None of these feelings have left me for the past decade; they wax and wane and I’ve learnt how to deal with them. Yet, every time I come back home, I am confronted with them in a new way and the looming nature of free time becomes a cloud over my head. Then again, maybe it’s not like this and is instead just proof that the books we read as children hold such a place within us that they can never really leave and in turn, we can never really leave them. Although, they remain stacked high on a shitty Ikea bookshelf at the end of a two-mile country lane, the opposite end of the country to where I live now. 

I am not sure of the significance of this book in relation to my experience of lockdown and this universal summer of discontent, but I know that it will always be in that room I come back to. And, like Milo, I don’t think I ever know what to do with myself, particularly when there is so much time. The only thing which has changed is that I can appreciate not knowing what to do. To find comfort in this slowness, despite its often dark presence. I have learnt what it is to have a favourite book and how much space these books have taken up, both physically in my room and the space they’ve inhabited in my brain for so many years.

Image: provided by Maisie Wills