My Life With Books
So, books? Thinking back, I can’t really remember a time before I discovered the joy they bring and the horizons they expand. Born in 1957, I spent my childhood following my father, a Royal Air Force navigator, around the world. When I think back to the seven schools I attended, I can remember the libraries of each more clearly than just about anything else about them. Books were entertainment, bringers of knowledge, and sometimes also feeders of pretensions.
What did I read as a child? Pretty much anything I could get my hands on. Series like Biggles, the Famous Five and the Secret Seven came and went. A book that shines out from this era was Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, which left a lasting impression on me. Another early book that was hugely influential was The Story of Kidnapped Told in Pictures, a 1948 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic told in comic-book form. If my love of Scotland had a single starting point, this was probably it. I’m not sure how or when the original book and I parted company, but it was so important to me that decades later I went out and found a replacement copy.
It took me quite a while to encounter a book that took my breath away. At the age of around 15, I had an inspirational English teacher. He encouraged pupils to broaden their reading via a list of authors whose books he awarded from 1 to 4 points. I can’t remember if my staple fare at the time, authors like Alistair McLean, Hammond Innes and Ian Fleming, were on the list, but if they were, they did not score highly. Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, meant four points per book (even for the short ones!) and he quickly propelled me up the class chart. This one simple idea dramatically broadened my reading habits, adding some much-needed quality to the quantity.
But it wasn’t Ernest Hemingway who took my breath away. One day, that same teacher waved a thick hardback book in front of the class. Who wanted to read it? He didn’t have to try hard to sell it, and at the cost of considerable loss of sleep, I had within a couple of days finished The Fellowship of the Ring and was clamouring for The Two Towers. Yes, The Lord of the Rings truly took my breath away. It also confirmed me as a fan of the infinity of possibilities reflected in science fiction and fantasy, genres that were to play a large part in my reading in the years to come.
It was that same list that caused me to trip over a book so hilarious in places that I couldn’t help laughing out loud. It’s also tragic in places and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is another book that must sit in my all-time top ten. Oddly enough, until I wrote that, I hadn’t realised that I had an all-time top ten. If I did, the book that would be at the top of the list is Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. That, without doubt, is the book that has stayed with me always. There are not all that many words in it, but each one is exactly right; and for me the result is deeply moving.
I think that the book that taught me most was the first book I read to my daughters. I can’t remember what it was, but it, and the many that followed, taught me that reading is a gift that can be shared with others; and that it can bring wonder into their lives just as it brought wonder into mine. Reading to my daughters – and later to my grandson – also gave me a second chance at books I’d missed the first time around. Had I really overlooked Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series as a child? Apparently, for they seemed very new to me when I read them out loud to an enthusiastic audience as an adult. Reading to my grandson is also an excuse to sample more modern material like Grandpa’s Great Escape by David Walliams, which is also the only book that has ever made me cry.
And, finally… what books would I give to a stranger? Easy: The Danger of Life and its predecessor Eyes Turned Skywards, by Ken Lussey. They are both great reads, if I say so myself!