(Reprinted from Biblionews vol. 20, no. 2 (June 1995), pp. 59-61)
My title has absolutely nothing to do with early printed books, books which most of us view with reverence and awe. These are books we would never expect to own, nor even want to own. I think there is a rugged homely sort of happiness in such a decision of bibliophilic abnegation, a sort of collector’s virtuous humility.
Early books in this essay refers to books we read early in our careers as book readers and book lovers. So we come to the books we read when we were young. Most of us, if asked, put on our best memory and might be prepared to list the books which influenced or appealed to us when we were children. They tend to be classics, at least “good” books and the sort of literature which does you no discredit at all to have been reading. Some of us, equally anxious to impress, will quote penny dreadfuls and that type of literature.
I am more interested in trying to identify the sort of printed pabulum that brought up our reading speed and encouraged us to take up the glorious and responsible profession of being a reader. Interestingly, often, these early books are not the ones we tend to collect by the time we have become incurable chronic (and happy) bibliophiles.
To be specific, when I was a boy, I “devoured” the Scarlet Pimpernel books by Baroness Orczy. When years later I became a boy again, this time as a Spanish reader, I greatly improved my reading speed by “gorging” myself on Spanish translations of Simenon’s Maigret thrillers. By the way, I recommend the same learning strategy in any other foreign language student. Simenon is well and widely translated.
My thesis is that one single book, stimulating and encouraging as it might be, is not of itself alone what encourages someone to be a book seeking and book enjoying member of our Society. More than one book is needed. The youngster needs a series, possibly by the one author, who has struck a responsive chord in the young reader. Although I would not deny that a “good” book is better than a “bad” book, I use these two terms somewhat mischievously. If compelled to describe a “good” book, I would say it should be well written, possibly beautifully illustrated and probably be uplifting in effect. This paragraph contains so many provocative and unsubstantiable assertions that I would “run for cover” and say that, all things being equal, quantity is more important than quality if you are to become a true reader.
When I was at high school, I read lots of Shakespeare’s plays (Marlowe’s too). Now, with hindsight, I suspect that it was because I had been told by my English master that I shouldn’t! I suspect that other young people too began to read a given author or series because they had been given to understand that they were not truly suitable books for the young. Which leads me to suggest a strategy to encourage literacy in young Australia. Boys and girls under the age of fourteen should not be allowed to read – to pluck one author’s name out of the air – Upfield’s Australian detective stories. You must present a certificate to say you are over the age of 18 before you may be seen with anything by Dame Mary Gilmore, just to suggest another example, or you have to buy a licence before you can read Patrick White.
So I should like to find out the authors or series my bibliophilic friends read in their youth. What I don’t want is a sanitized reading list of their favourite “early books”. Sometimes popularity for a writer or series can be notably ephemeral. I come from the pre-Tolkien era, then came a generation who cut their reading teeth on Tolkien and now we have an even younger generation who have never heard of him. O tempora, o mores!
I reveal my age by recalling how as a schoolboy I had enough pocket-money and so was able to buy a Penguin or a Pelican when they truly cost but sixpence. Most readers would admit that those imprints were probably well-chosen books. Perhaps things changed; more likely we have changed in our tastes. I can still remember reading Ariel quite early on. The book which influenced me very much was Prince Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, though I wonder to this day why it was chosen for publication so early in the Penguin publishing saga. I can only assume that one of the publishing group must have had a special regard for both the book and its message. At about the same time the N.S.W. Bookstall Company produced some ever so cheap adventure books, unillustrated internally but with a bright illustrative front cover. Readers better informed than myself will no doubt be able to give me more accurate details.
Something else comes to mind, and I admit it might show me in an unfavourable light. Sometimes for a fancy-dress party I was put in my sister’s clothes. I hated and loathed that. By the same token, I doubt I ever physically touched a Green Gable or Little Womentype book!
Confident that other members would have more reliable and detailed memories, I ask my fellow members to describe early books which helped establish them as readers. For that matter, would anyone like to suggest what books to-day you would put in the hands of the young to serve a similar purpose? I imagine Golden Books are still widely read. But is that the answer? And, anyhow I am really referring to somewhat older kids.