Cathy Rentzenbrink on the joy of reading: 'After the wheel, the book must be one of the great inventions'

Her Cork-born dad ran away to sea as a teenager, but the author has produced a widely-praised account of how the rest of us can find solace in the printed word 
Cathy Rentzenbrink on the joy of reading: 'After the wheel, the book must be one of the great inventions'

Cathy Rentzenbrink author Picture: Peter Flude

To call Cathy Rentzenbrink a bibliophile seems like a bit of an understatement. In her new book, she recalls how, in a brief dalliance with online dating, she described herself as an ‘amiable bookworm’, which also undersells her passion for reading somewhat. She is more like an evangelist for the sacred power of books, talking about them with a reverential awe that reminds me of how much we take these humble rectangular portals for granted.

“It is just such a perfect delivery mechanism, the book. It is amazing, it is so low-tech — after the wheel, the book must be one of the great inventions,” says Rentzenbrink from her home in Cornwall.

In the past six months, many people have at last found the time to tackle their teetering ‘to be read’ piles or indeed, have plucked old favourites from the shelves to distract themselves from the relentless drumbeat of Covid. It is this feeling of finding succour in books that Rentzenbrink captures with such warmth and acuity in Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books. Fellow book-lovers will nod in recognition when she writes: “When the bite of real life is too brutal, I retreat into made-up worlds and tread well-worn paths. I don’t crave the new when I feel like this, but look for solace in the familiar. It is as though in re-encountering my most-loved fictional characters, I can also reconnect with my previous selves and come out feeling less fragmented. Reading built me and always has the power to put me back together again.” Having previously worked as a bookseller and for a literacy charity, Rentzenbrink turned to writing, displaying her gift for memoir in the profoundly moving The Last Act of Love, about her younger brother Matty who was knocked down by a car two weeks before he got his GCSE results. He never regained consciousness, and died after spending eight years in a coma.

In Dear Reader, she writes of how the first stories she remembers were not in books but rather in the rebel songs she heard from her Cork-born father, Kevin Mintern, whose story sounds like it deserves a whole book of its own.

“He is from 98 Street in Cork, and was the youngest of nine; his mum died when he was only eight. He was in bed with her, he woke up and she was cold beside him. After that, things became desperate. I can’t imagine what it must have been like,” says Rentzenbrink. 

“His father basically drank himself to death and he died a few years later. By then, my dad had gone feral… He has loads of funny stories about running away from the truant officer — once the Lough was frozen and he ran away across the ice. When he was 15, he ran away to sea with his friend. Three years later, he sailed into Falmouth and met my mum, he was 18, she was 14 and that was it. They are still happily married.”

Rentzenbrink’s father worked as a tin and coal miner, and her parents took over a pub in Yorkshire when she was a teenager. Her parents always encouraged her to read, even though being a voracious reader was viewed with a certain suspicion when she was in primary school, where she was accused of “swallowing a dictionary”.

“My dad was really firm about it, he would say you don’t want to be making your money by being underground for 12 hours every day,” she says.

Books have always been a bellwether for Rentzenbrink, through a sometimes lonely childhood, relationship breakdown, and times when she struggled with her mental health.

“Reading is such an important part of how I manage my mental health but it goes with also retreating from the world. I get in the bath with a book and just step off the mad treadmill of modern life for a bit.” 

Rentzenbrink says The Comfort of Reading came about when she became stuck with a novel and found herself reminiscing about her time as a bookseller, when, ‘lost and sad’ after her relationship broke down, she returned from abroad to London, and got a job at a Waterstones branch in Harrods. It is where she met her Dutch husband Erwyn.

“I loved being a bookseller. Working in customer services was hard but I just kept thinking about all the conversations I used to have on the shop floor…that thing of talking to strangers about books, which is what I love.” 

When it comes to the medium of reading, Rentzenbrink is very much old-school but says it doesn’t matter to her how or what people read. “I feel reading is the thing, I can’t be doing with getting worked up about how people are choosing to do it. E-reading is great, if I’ve got manuscripts to read, it is magic that in a tiny box, you can access all these books. But for me certainly the Rolls Royce experience of reading is a real book — a big one, hardback, quite a big font. If I try to read a book on an iPad, for example, I would be tempted to look at my email or Twitter.”

For Rentzenbrink, books offer salvation from the eternal and soul-sapping scroll of social media. “If I spent all my time on Twitter, I would not be reading a word and I would not be writing a word. I would be staring at my phone getting increasingly depressed. 

Reading makes me feel calm, interested, energised, hopeful. I’ve been reading books for all of my life pretty much — I’m 47 now — but I’m still staggered by a book, by its existence. That someone poured themselves between the covers and that I get to read it. It is a miracle.”

Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink, published by Picador, is out now

Children’s Books I Love to Reread

Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge: The author of these boarding school stories was a teacher and is gifted at putting small boys on the page in all their boisterous and unwise glory. I laugh my head off at the antics of Jennings and Darbishire, and the old-fashioned language is part of the fun.

Biggles Learns to Fly by Captain W.E. Johns: These books are a bit dated now, but they are good adventure stories and also encourage a discussion about the futility of war. They also aid gratitude in daily life.

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit:  This gently heroic tale of how a mother copes when her husband is wrongfully arrested is the more powerful for being seen through the eyes of her perceptive daughter, Bobbie, who is clever, kind and never gives up. I am unable to read this slim book without crying at least six times, usually in all the same places.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: I can’t remember a time when the March sisters — Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy — were not a part of my life. I most identify with Jo, and her tomboyish ways. I still reread Little Women often, especially at Christmas as it offers an antidote to the excesses of festive consumption.

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