A little while ago I squeezed a longer article into bookstagram format, so here I am going to unpack it a little. The post was called The History of my Reading Life, or The Books that Raised Me. The idea is to mark the significant reading events in my life, from as early as I can remember to the present day.
I can thank my mum and dad for the fact that I could read and write before I started school – which was great, but also a little boring while I waited for everyone to catch up with me. Once they had, we embarked on the wonderfully facile Janet and John, and Peter and Jane books (every single face was white as far as I remember!)... “Here is Peter.” Next page. “Here is Jane.” Next page. “Here are Peter and Jane.” Next page. Unexpected plot twist!! No, only joking…
Like most people I struggle to accurately remember much before the age of seven or eight. Snippets, possibly fake news, but no coherent narrative. So I am going to skip to the first book I remember reading, and re-reading, and endlessly re-reading…
Book 1 - The Book of Brownies, by Enid Blyton – Age 6-7ish
The first proper book that I read by myself, perfect from the colourful hardback cover to the three ant-hero protagonists who argue, mess up, are naughty, mischievous, occasionally daft, but thoroughly engaging and loveable. Many people remember the Magic Faraway Tree and the Wishing Chair, but to my knowledge the first time I read those was when I read them to my kids (who loved them).
The three brownies (a type of pixie) Hop, Skip and Jump mess up and are forced away from their home town to make amends, and rescue the Princess Peronel from Witch Green-eyes. They literally tumble from one wonderful adventure to another, each one more fantastical than the last. In fact if they only had half the adventures it would still be an amazing book. I would rate this as Blyton’s best work and as with all the books here, would highly recommend.
Book 2 – Asterix the Gaul, by Goscinny and Uderzo – Age 8ish
Between first school and second school we moved houses and moved areas, and I was lucky enough to find myself only 400 yards from a public library. I think I wore a rut in the road going to and fro, and for the first couple of years at least I would pretty much run to the box containing the big, hardback Asterix and Tintin books.
Another book that I took out repeatedly from the library was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming. This is a great little illustrated story, a little different from the film. It’s amazing that it was written by the same man who wrote the James Bond stories. And at the end, was a recipe for Monsieur Bon Bon’s secret fooj, which I made several times, and paid for in dental fillings.
Around this time I was certainly into a wide variety of weekly comics as well: the Dandy, Acton Man, the Beano, etc. They were affordable with a small amount of pocket money and a great introduction to reading.
Book 3 – Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien – Age 11ish
I have a very clear and strong image of my Dad reading to my brother and myself at bedtime, and this is linked to three books specifically: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Richard Adams’ Watership down. The Lord of the Rings remains my all-time favourite story and I struggle to imagine a book that will know it off that top spot. I must have read it fifteen times. It has everything, adventure and excitement, fantasy and realism, terror and humour. It has an incredibly realised world and brilliant characters. The only thing was, we would beg my Dad not to sing the songs!
Book 4 - Night Without End, by Alastair Maclean – Age 13
It was about this time that I reached a familiar dilemma – which in turn lead to a reading hiatus. I had a reading age in advance of my maturity, and my actual age. I was not ready for adult books, but I was done with kids’ books. Luckily, a family friend stepped in and suggested I try Night Without End, a thriller crossed with a survival story after a plane crash in the Arctic. I was instantly hooked and read it in no time at all, closely followed by another twenty Alastair Maclean novels. I also read Jack Higgins, Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley, and though they did not grip me as much as Maclean, they launched me into the whole world of literature. And that, as they say, is history.
Book 5 - Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger – Age 14
I attended a moderately grim boys’ comprehensive school from aged 11 on, and they weren’t the brightest and bubbliest days of my life. It was pretty much regimented and anxiety was my overriding emotion. Still, there were a few brighter moments, and they usually came in my favourite subjects. One of my two favourite teachers, Mr Perry who taught English Language stood in front of us one day and said “Right. Forget the curriculum for a while. I cannot let you go through my class without reading Catcher in the Rye…” What a great decision. Whilst I can’t claim to have fully understood or appreciated it at the time, it felt special, different and exciting. I’d never heard writing like that before – so colloquial, tortured, informal and direct. My eyes opened wide.
Book 6 - Henry IV, Pt 1, by William Shakespeare – Age 15
I mentioned one of my two favourite teachers above, and the other was my wonderful English Literature teacher Mr Cox. He was fortunate to have a class of only nine – English Literature was not popular. One of the first thing he had to do was introduce us to William Shakespeare and he did it so well. We read through Richard II first to get rid of all our complaints and to acclimatise us to historical period and the language, so that when we came to the one we actually had to study – Henry IV, Part one – we were at least receptive. I have to say that I think I got Shakespeare pretty much straight away and I have loved his works ever since. There is simply no modern writer like him. I could dedicate a whole blog just to saying what I love about his plays, and I probably will, so I won’t rattle on here.
Book 7 – The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas – Age 19
I was lucky to move to Surrey while the incredible Thomas Thorpe’s bookshop was still open in Guildford. It had once been a cinema and was rambling, slightly musty, with hidden rooms, long corridors, sloping floors, polished dark wood steps, vaulted ceilings… and rows and rows of shelves of amazing second hand books. Their classics section was mouth-watering, their prices low and the century old hard backs very desirable. I filled by boots – probably 400 of my books are from there. It was a tragedy for me when it closed down, and Guildford hasn’t had a second hand bookshop other than Oxfam since. Shame.
Book 8 - All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich-Maria Remarque – Age 24
Another book from Thomas Thorpe’s bookshop. Looking back at me at this age I am reminded of the Holden Caulfield quote “I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.” I was quite intelligent but pretty ignorant. I still thought in terms of WWI Germans as ‘baddies’ etc, as my grandparents generation fought in the world wars, so I found this insight into the ordinary German boy, their lives and motivations, the misery fear and privations of the front completely changed my perspective. I was shocked that I had been so ignorant. It is one of the very few books that definitely changed my life and made me a more tolerant and reflective person.
Book 9 - First form at Malory Towers, by Enid Blyton – Age 35
From the age of 31 I had children that I could read to and I had gone some way to completing the circle that my father started when he read to me and my brother. I started with the picture books, and moved on to the likes of the Alfie books from the library, Tom and Pippo’s Day, Thomas the Tank Engine, Room on the Broom, etc. – all the time vicariously enjoying the joy in my children’s eyes as they absorbed the stories. We read everything from Tracey Beaker to the Hobbit, Molly Moon to Lizzie Maguire.
If I was uncertain about a book I read it myself first. I read the seven book series of Malory Towers in all four times, once by myself, once to my eldest and twice to my youngest - as well as the St Clare and Naughtiest Girl books. Enid Blyton is an amazing storyteller. Amazing. So much output – I usually distrust the prolific – and so much quality.
Book 10 - To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf – Age 47
Re-reading this book, more than twenty-five years after I first read it, I had a bit of an epiphany. The expression that “no two persons ever read the same book” equally applies to one person at different ages. I did not see the point of Woolf when I was younger and certainly did not appreciate her genius or her place in literature.
Understanding now what she was trying to do, and how well she did it, I thoroughly enjoyed To the Lighthouse, and then Mrs Dalloway. It opened a world of other books to me as well, books that I previously disliked – might I like them now; and books that I previously liked; would my reaction change. I am a different person now to my younger self.
Book 11 - The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath – Age 48
I bought this book because I had started following a couple of bookstagrammers on Instagram, and they had featured it. I knew Plath’s poetry but not her prose, and thought the book excellent. I was reading it whilst laid out sunbathing on the shore of Lake Annecy in France, and inspired by bookstagram decided to take a picture of it, looking out over the water towards the mountains. I set up a second, book specific (but still private) account and posted the picture with no comments, tags or hashtags. Then three months later, when I finally flicked the account to ‘public’ it became my very first post - and the start of a very exciting journey!
Book 12 - My Antonia, by Willa Cather – Age 49
There’s an odd moment when your kids become adults and you realise you’ve suddenly changed generations. This happened definitively when my eldest went off to university, something I had not done. Luckily, she shared her American Literature reading list with me which included A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (a must read), Edgar Allan Poe’s selected poetry nd prose (gothic), Dom DeLillo’s White Noise (right up my street), Jon Dos Passos’ Manhattan (modernist nonsense) and the simply wonderful immigrant pioneer tale My Antonia, by Willa Cather. It was great to experience university study by proxy.
Book 13 - Book of Sand / Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges – Age 50
You’d think by the age of fifty that nothing would surprise me, but bookstagram suggested Jorge Luis Borges and I duly obliged. Wow. Who knew that I would read for the best part of fifty years and then find an author which turned everything I had previously read on its head. From a dialogue between his older and younger self The Other, to the mind-bending world-with-a novel-within-a-world multiverse story of an infinite labyrinth, the Garden of Forking Paths. An astonishing writer.