I can remember the first book I read. I suppose I should apologise that it was Little Black Sambo. The content was harmless enough; the climax of the story was when the tigers chasing round a tree became so hot they melted into butter, with which Sambo made an enormous number of pancakes to eat. However the vocabulary would nowadays offend many. It cannot have been long before I was reading R. M. Balantyne’s Coral Island. I can actually remember more of the story behind the first book than the second, although I have never read either of them again, nor would I wish to.
It wasn’t long before I had moved on to Enid Blyton. I won’t mention the Noddy books by title; they were very slight although quite fun. More substantial were the Secret Seven and the Famous Five stories, though I only read one, The Castle of Adventure. As for Arthur Ransome, I read all his Swallows and Amazons series with delight. By now I must have been eight or nine years old. The next book that I can remember reading was The Hobbit.
By the time I was ten I had also devoured C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books. When I arrived in the Prep School at Gresham’s aged ten I was already reading volume two of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Although this continued the story begun in The Hobbit, I think most people would agree that it is not really a young children’s book. The complexity of the writing is too advanced for most kids, but I think I was unusual. At any rate I had finished this introductory reading material by the time I was eleven.
Some other children’s books had also come my way, though I cannot remember at exactly what stage. Pilgrim’s Progress is regarded (wrongly) as a children’s book; no children read it today, nor do many adults. Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass were also on my reading list. The Wind in the Willows was a great favourite and the Winnie the Pooh books were looked at over and over again. I say ‘looked at’ rather than ‘read’ because E. H. Shepheard’s illustrations are an integral part of the experience.
Some of these books were read to me, at least in part. For example I think some of Alice in Wonderland was read to me, and Lewis Carroll’s lesser known book of verse, The Hunting of the Snark, was a particular favourite of my mother, who frequently read me passages from it. Mostly however my reading was done by myself, while my busy family had other things to do. Needless to say much of the content of these books passed me by at that tender age when I read them. My vocabulary was good but my appreciation of concepts was still unformed.
The idea of children’s books specifically written for teenagers did not then exist. Whether I would have read them had they been available I rather doubt; before I was a teenager I had moved on to the works of Charles Dickens and Walter Scott. When I was 13 I immediately read all Ian Fleming’s books on James Bond, but this was mainly because they were in my school’s house library marked Thirteen and Above. The books by P. G. Wodehouse I first discovered at about that age. These stories, especially the Bertie Wooster ones, are one of the few works of fiction that I have continued to read as an adult, though the occasions are few and far between. At fifteen I had moved on to books by George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley.
I am rapidly coming to the end of my reading habits, as far as works of fiction are concerned. At seventeen I was deep into reading plays, particularly the dramas by George Bernard Shaw. I also read some Shakespeare, but I must admit I found this rather hard going. It is far easier to enjoy these plays when acted by professionals, and all the hard work of interpretation has been done for you by the producer.
By eighteen I had discovered poetry, and this became my exclusive reading material, so much so that my English A level was answered entirely on poetry. At the age of twenty I became officially an adult. It had been 21, but by Act of Parliament the age of majority was reduced to 18. I had already passed that age and am one of relatively few Britons who can claim to have reached their majority at 20. I will therefore end this examination of children’s reading material at this age. I was at university by then and was reading only history books and works of philosophy in French.
I do not claim my reading habits were typical, even at the time; but nowadays reading seems very much a minority activity. People must read the blockbuster bestseller paperbacks, but many children who enthuse about Harry Potter are likely to be thinking of the films rather than the books. I have read the first of the Harry Potter books. The story is a good one but I was not impressed by the quality of the writing. There were some technical errors and the standard of English was very average. I was not encouraged to read the subsequent books, although obviously the author must have done something right, to be so phenomenally popular.