Posts Tagged ‘The Wind in the Willows’

On old favourites

March 11, 2017

I’m sure everyone has these. I have more books than I care to think about (sometimes) and I’ll certainly never now have the time to get around to (re)-reading them all. But among them are some books I have loved for many years and which I treasure with a great fondness. Childhood favourites are The Wind in the Willows – my copy is certainly the first book in my library and I can still recall buying it with a Christmas book token when I was seven or eight years old. I used to fantasise about living in Badger’s underground home, so cosy it seemed. And I discovered a brilliant audio version, yes, on the librivox website…

Then there was Winnie the Pooh, which I loved; I recently bought a new copy to be able to read to my new grandson, in a few years time. Somewhere I have a copy of the Latin translation, bought as a curiosity many years ago. And The Borrowers, which was serialised in a children’s magazine when I was very young. I bought my elder daughter the omnibus edition and we shared it as a bedtime book but never got to the end together before she became too old for bedtime stories…

I also loved Professor Branestawm’s adventures, unable to read them without collapsing into hysterical fits of laughter; I still wish I could imitate him and send the gas company an envelope filled with mashed potato instead of a cheque paying the bill.

Grown-up reading seems rather different to me: as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown out of, or beyond some of the books that moved me greatly when I was younger. I haven’t lost Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund and will revisit it every few years for as long as I’m able: it meant something else to me when I was a mere student, and now in my older age it holds very different but just as significant messages for me. I shall also return regularly to Oscar’s adventures in The Tin Drum, to the reflectiveness of Adso in The Name of the Rose, and the magical world of Maldonado in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And – I’m still not sure why, but Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls demands to be re-read, if only for its magnificent swearing. And if I was to pick out one SF novel, it would have to be Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars: anyone who can project us a billion years into the future earns my respect. Finally, you won’t be surprised to hear, nothing will separate me from Sherlock Holmes (in this existence, at least).

Where I’m heading, I think, is towards what has made me love these books for so long, to come back to them so many times. They’re not the only ones that I re-read, by any means, but they means something different and special to me. I suppose that I must have read them at various crucial moments in my life. That’s certainly true of the Hesse and the Arthur C Clarke; I just can’t remember about the others. Some of them are brilliant novels that are on many lists of ‘the greats’, others are probably only great to me. What they share, for me, is the ways they open up life and experience, reveal the vastness of our lives and the universe.

Oscar remembers, recreates a vanished world, a place that no longer exists. Many other novels do this, too – Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for example. But the haunting picture of the lost Danzig is overlaid with the many tragedies of its inhabitants: the Jewish toyshop owner who commits suicide, the mixed communities which in the end could no longer co-exist, the Germans who had to leave.

Hesse shows us a friendship which lasts many years, a lifetime, in fact. So do many novels. But he also shows what attracts these so very different characters to each other and what sustains the bond across the years when they are on their separate journeys, and somehow manages to link these two men to the wider human condition, our needs for companionship and understanding.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to play a game with myself. I have to downsize, perhaps eventually move into some sort of sheltered accommodation, and can only take a hundred books with me: what would I choose from the thousands I currently have? All of the ones I’ve mentioned above would be on the list. It’s a bit like returning to childhood, which is where I began this post: I still have my very first bookcase, which my dad made for me when I was about seven: I gradually filled it up as I grew up. It might just hold a hundred books.

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On learning to read…

March 10, 2015

12906602197481I sometimes think about the process of learning to read, and how astonishing it is, because it opens up a whole new world beyond the real, physical world, to a child. There’s normally controversy about how it should be done, especially in England, where education has long been a political football; as my wife was a primary teacher, we sometimes discuss the issue and compare notes on our experiences.

I went back to my own experience. Firstly, I have no recollection of being read to at home, whereas this is nowadays a joy to children and their parents. There were no books, although I’m not completely clear whether this was a class thing, because of lack of money, or because books for small children were not widely available during my childhood. So, learning to read happened at school, beginning in Miss Marvell’s class in my case, with an alphabet frieze around the top of the classroom walls to chant together, and flashcards which she held up for us to recite – ‘Mother Mother see Kitty’ being the only one I can remember, thinking it a rather odd statement to be making, even at the age of five… In Mrs Harvey’s class we read together, read aloud individually, and she read to us, which I loved; my picture is of it all coming together pretty quickly and without any real difficulty. I do recall having to help one or two of the ‘weak’ readers with their books. What thrilled me was the discovery of longer books, with actual stories in them: I was hooked very quickly.

I was enrolled in Stamford Public Library at an early age, and often made daily visits to get another book to read. I discovered science fiction written for children, and loved the idea that there might be other worlds out there. It was there that I came across the ‘Young Traveller‘ series, in which a (nuclear, white, middle class) family of parents and children visit different countries of the world and are introduced to different foods, traditions and practices, and see the main tourist sites. All very wholesome, and illustrated by inset pages of black and white photographs. But I am not surprised that I love travel, and travel writing in my later years.

I worked my way through the classroom libraries in school, reading pretty much everything, including large parts of the ten-volume Children’s Encyclopaedia by Arthur Mee. Once you had completed whatever task the teacher had set for that session, you got sent off to pick a reading book… bliss.

I began to acquire books, slowly, and my father made me a small bookcase for my bedroom – I still have it. I loved the relatives who sent me book tokens for Christmas and birthdays, rather than the usual boring stuff. One of them bought me The Wind in the Willows – the oldest book in my library – and another bought me The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (and we all know what that led to!). I also read comics, hoovering up the adventures of Dan Dare, although I don’t think my parents fully approved of this sort of literature.

I think things are rather different nowadays. Libraries are a shadow of their former selves in this individualistic and consumer-oriented age; printing techniques have developed enormously to allow the production of beautiful children’s books; schools are tackling some of the issues connected with poverty and class attitudes to education. For me, learning to read set my imagination free for life, and, as a child, it was at least on a par with the discovery of Lego…

Children’s Books

September 26, 2014

A recent challenge on Facebook asked me to name ten books that had stayed with me. Being advanced in years, that gave me a fair bit to reflect on: The Wind in the Willows made its way into the list. And then I posted it, and carried on thinking about how and what I read as a child…

I was a voracious reader; I read my sisters’ library books as well as my own (as a family we didn’t have the money to buy many books) and ran out of books to read in the children’s section of Stamford Public Library and was given a special dispensation to use the adult library at age 11.

The first book I remember I loved was Winnie the Pooh; then came Kenneth Grahame‘s classic, which I still love, and which, incidentally, is available as a marvellous free recording from the librivox website, and a serialisation of The Borrowers in a children’s comic I read at the time. I remember reading that aloud with my own daughter some 30 years later: the omnibus volume was so long that we only got halfway through: she was a reader of her own by then. I devoured all the books in the classrooms at school: I remember the adventures of a bear called Mary Plain, that continued through lots of books, ages before Paddington became a hit. And there came boys’ books, too: the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge: humorous adventures at boarding school years before I actually went to one. Biggles – how many books were there? – by Captain W E Johns, and then a curious discovery of a series of novels about the ‘Secret Planet‘ which must have been what kindled a life-long love of science fiction. There was also a many-volume series called ‘The Young Traveller in (supply name of country)’ which perhaps interested me in travel, another passion which has stayed with me throughout my life. Two children – a boy and a girl, of course – and their parents travelled through a country, visiting its interesting and historic places and learning about them, meeting the inhabitants and sampling the food; all good, wholesome fare for a child, and opening his eyes to the way that people and places could be different.

At some point Sherlock Holmes came along, too, in the form of a paperback for five shillings, bought with a Christmas book token (remember those?) from a relative: again, I never looked back, as many of my students, and my own children can testify.

When our own children came along and we read to and with them, I was astonished by the much wider range of books available, and the colourfulness, too: my childhood books had been full of words, black on white, and perhaps some monochrome photographs in a centre section if I were lucky. Books encouraged my fantasies and unleashed my imagination; books showed me other worlds and other ways to be; books made me think…

I realised how early the joy of words had come to me, how many of my lifelong pleasures had been triggered during my childhood days. I had the run of a library, and was encouraged to read as much as I wanted at school, and I loved it. Books are magic.

The Test of Time

March 5, 2014

The last small digression (for the moment) is about what stands the test of time. I’ve often wondered, and had my students discuss, what books written today might still be read in a century’s time. How can we know what will survive? For example, the blockbuster of recent years, the Harry Potter series: will children in 2114 still be reading the books, in the same way that (some) children are still enjoying the books of a century ago and more, like The Wind in the Willows, or Winnie the Pooh?

Novels and writers very popular in my younger years have vanished almost without trace: I’m sure some dusty secondhand bookshops still harbour the thrillers of Alastair MacLean or Arthur Hailey, but then thrillers possibly aren’t going to last very long. I remember how fashionable D H Lawrence was in the 1970s when I was at university, and have long been aware how he has almost disappeared from view. And he is/ was a serious writer, writing about serious themes and ideas – love, relationships between men and women. Not enough, it would seem.

Shakespeare wrote plays about love; many writers today write about love, perhaps tragic love – The Time Traveller’s Wife leaps to mind. But can we expect that novel to survive the test of time? And why won’t it?

Writers from centuries ago clearly have an advantage: Shakespeare and Jane Austen have already lasted, and have been hallowed and canonised by academia, so they are hardly likely to fade into obscurity – the longer a work lasts, the more it’s likely to continue to last, if you see what I mean.

I have often thought that it cannot just be the subject matter that ensures a work’s survival, for there are a limited number of themes out there, and all have been repeatedly used: one of the most interesting analyses of the last decade was Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, in which he explores that very idea, that everything written is basically a variation on an age-old trope. So that leaves character, style and language, perhaps?

We aren’t capable of seeing the wood for the trees, possibly. The SF writer Theodore Sturgeon was famous for stating that 95% of science fiction was crap, but then 95% of everything was crap: we are surrounded by a lot of chaff which will be winnowed away somehow by the passage of time…

In the end, I think there has to be an original treatment of a theme or subject (Shakespeare notoriously lifted others’ plots!); there have to be powerfully conceived and developed characters as opposed to stock ones who are merely the vehicles for a plot to unfold; there has to be something in terms of the way that a story is written (yes, language and style) that can set a work apart from all the others that surround and swamp it.

So, from my three best books of the twentieth century (Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) which will someone, somewhere, be enjoying a century from now?

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