Laura Freeman was 13 when anorexia took hold of her. A pernicious illness, it blighted her growing up, dominated her teens and early 20s. Around 15 years on, Laura has the measure of it, and in writing The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite has come to understand that though battles may be lost, as she puts it, the war can yet be won.
I can't recommend this book highly enough. What you might expect to be a painfully self-regarding, reiteration of dark times is something quite other. It could have been uncomfortably heavy, ponderously introspective, as distressing as distressed, but it is none of those things. Laura's account of reading as salvation, restorer of "relish", is instead graceful, balanced, elegantly observational, and above all hopeful, positive, and forward looking.
It's the most beautifully written book, for as Laura describes how Dickens "slackened the knots" of her illness, Siegfried Sassoon put her on to eggs, MFK Fisher won her over to butter, Hardy drew her back to milk, and JL Carr's Mrs. Ellerbeck led the way to Yorkshire pudding, she savours those books and characters, and recounts with lightness and eloquence how they fed not only her "trencherman's greed for books" but bolstered her appetite for food, allowing her to see it as friend, not foe, and amounting to "a whole library of reasons to eat, share, live, to want to be well."
Laura reads widely and with discernment, choosing to spend time in the company of authors who can delight, entertain, inspire, and hearten. Take Laurie Lee, for instance: "his writing, walking and eating had a propulsive, infectious energy"; Patrick Leigh Fermor's adventuring and "happy, effortless" enjoyment of food signalled in her a small moment of personal liberation, a relaxation of the self-imposed rules that had hitherto made meals joyless. Molesworth ("my hero, my knight in rusting armour") makes her laugh, Harry Potter sparks a spell of "voluptuous reading" of childhood favourites.
Virginia Woolf, Laura acknowledges, has been both congenial fellow-traveller on a hard road, and stark warning. "No other writer has helped me make sense of my own mind, nor offered such a rubric for how I might mend it," but in the end, of course, Woolf could no longer "rein in and stable her galloping horses, tie them and keep them in hay". This fact, however, makes her resolve to "fight for life and health all the more fiercely".
To illustrate her mental state when in the grip of the illness Laura uses the analogy of a library, but one of broken windows, fallen bookcases, damaged, disordered books: a place of wreckage, not retreat. Her reading over the years has helped her to right her mental furniture, reordering, repairing, making good and strong and whole again, and ultimately her message for anyone suffering anorexia, or depression, "or any other head illness or heart sickness" comes from T.H. White's Merlyn:
"Learn something," Laura says, "It is the best medicine. It is the only thing that never fails. In my case that has meant reading, most of all. Galleries and church-haunting, too. But it needn't be book-learning, it might be a language, an instrument, the names of wildflowers, the calls of town-garden birds, fifty years of county cricket scores, or how to make bread, mix watercolours, thread a needle, anything that takes you out of yourself. That is the real magic, not Merlyn's mustard-pot sorcery."
Do read this book, whether or not you've been afflicted or affected by mental illness. Read it as a book-lover; read it to read with fresh eyes - or sharpened tastebuds; read it for fellow-feeling and hard-won wisdom, and for the sheer joy of taking pleasure in good things.