Reading

At Näs there was a little cottage where the Ericsson family’s “cow-man”, Sven lived with his wife Kristin and their daughter Edit. Astrid and Gunnar loved to play there with Edit who was a few years older. Her little bedroom was up in the attic and full of exciting stuff. There were dolls, stamps, boxes with pearls in them and some storybooks. Sometimes Astrid and Gunnar tried to sneak up the stairs to Edit’s room when she was not at home. But stern Kristin always heard them and stopped them from going up there. Astrid and Gunnar were convinced that she must have goblin ears to be able to hear that well. But sometimes Kristin kindly treated them to pancakes – she made the best pancakes on earth.

The ancient kitchen where it all began

Kristin’s simple kitchen only had a wooden bench, a couple of chairs and an iron stove. It was in this kitchen that Edit read the first fairytale that the four year-old Astrid had ever heard. The rain was drumming against the window pane, and as Edit was reading about Bam-Bam the giant and a fairy called Viribunda, the kitchen became an enchanted place.

This is Astrid’s own account of it: “And we were sitting there on the floor, my brother and I, listening to her reading this wondrous story about ‘the giant Bam-Bam and Viribunda the fairy’. Well! That I didn’t die on the spot! In that instant a hunger to read was born in me, and with the impatience of a four year-old, I stared at those strange black squiggles which Edit could interpret, but I couldn’t. As if by some curious magic, the whole kitchen could suddenly be filled with fairies, giants and goblins.” This kitchen became important for a long time to come. Astrid has disclosed that almost every kitchen described in her books is modelled on Kristin’s kitchen.

Engaging all the senses

Astrid, Gunnar and their sisters read everything they could get their hands on. The books and the reading provided constant inspiration for their games. Sometimes, they made up songs about the books. Once, when Astrid was trying to get her little sister Ingegerd off to sleep, she simply sang the words straight out of the book she was reading at the time.

Astrid herself describes how it was to read as a child: “It was something that engaged your entire being – sight, smell, touch – more intensely than anything else in a child’s world.” A new book was “almost painfully wonderful”.

At Christmas, the children were given new books, but the rest of the time they borrowed them from friends or from the school library. Astrid testifies to having an insatiable hunger for books, where everything she could find – from Anne of Green Gables and Tom Sawyer, to The Man with Fists of Steel and King of the Champions – was read with the same eagerness and great satisfaction.

Poor and hungry – finding solace in the books

In 1920’s Stockholm, where Astrid had moved as a 19 year-old, work was scarce and an office-girl’s wages were not much to live on. She was young, poor and away from her big family. At that time, her reading became a life-saver. She writes: “My Sundays were lonely and dull and the only way I could survive them was with the help of books.”

She describes her joy over discovering the City library: “I’ll never forget how it felt walking into that grand building and setting eyes on that sea of books. You could just help yourself – or so I thought. I wandered around for ages, just enjoying being able to chose among the volumes.” It turned out not to be quite as simple as just being there, picking and choosing. First, you had to have a library card and that would take some days to organise. Astrid continues: “It was such a disappointment. It nearly killed me! I couldn’t help myself, and to my eternal shame, I started to bawl my eyes out.” The librarian looked at her with astonishment. “He must have thought my interest in literature was somewhat extreme”, she writes.

She read a book called Starvation by Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian and she was gripped by “an intense happiness and sense of kinship with the young Hamsun and everyone else who was starving away in all the cities of the world.”

“How I laughed! There I was, sitting on the park bench holding the book up in front of my face so that passers-by wouldn’t think I was insane. Yes, I was groaning with laughter, reading about J A Happolati, the man who’d invented the electric hymnbook. Maybe Pippi might not have turned out such an enormous liar if Hamsun hadn’t been sitting on a wooden bench lying through his teeth about the marvellous Happolati to a half-blind old fellow who comes along and plonks himself down next to him!”

A deep and multi-talented individual with a phenomenal memory

Some of the books Astrid read as a child continued to be favourites throughout the years. Later on, these were read out loud to her children and grandchildren who through the voice of Astrid got to experience the magic of these stories. Amongst these were Treasure Island, The Little Princess and Daddy Longlegs.

Later in life she read a lot of poetry, philosophy, historic novels and biographies. Some of her favourite Swedish poets were Nils Ferlin, Harry Martinson and Pär Lagerkvist. She also read Gustaf Fröding, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Edith Södergran and Hjalmar Gullberg. Piet Hein and his “grooks” were among her favourites, as were the German authors Heinrich Heine and Goethe. She could recite a great number of poems by heart and knew all the verses of many old broadsheet ballads.

On her bedside table you might find War and Peace or Homer’s The Odyssey, or The Divine Comedy by Dante or Falstaff, fakir alongside books by Solzhenitsyn. As an adult she read Norwegian, Danish, English and German books in the original language. Her home in Dalagatan and the summer house in Furusund are both filled with book shelves. Altogether, her collections of books amount to 4,200.

The Little Princess, a favourite book as a childDaddy Longlegs, a favourite book as a childMary Poppins, a favourite bookSilvervit booklet which includes Anna Maria Roos’ fairytale about Bam-Bam the giant and a fairy called Viribunda