A word that frequently pops up in books about reading is “pleasure”. This a quality many overlook as they hurry through bestsellers, books of the moment, and other titles they feel ought to be read.
The titles of many works reflect this. There’s John Carey’s Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books; Eric MacFarlane’s The Pleasure of Reading; Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age; Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books; and The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser.
It’s this last book I turned to recently, as pleasure is in short supply nowadays (along with other essentials). Fraser’s book came as a welcome respite at a time when it’s hard to muster up the concentration to read uninterruptedly.
The volume is an updated edition of the original, published in 1992, with short essays by 43 writers on their discoveries of reading and the books that inspired them. As Fraser notes in her introduction, “the reading of other writers is the most fascinating of all; a truth is here revealed, as when looking at the houses in which famous architects actually live.”
The writers and books mentioned clearly have a British slant, even though the inclusion of new authors tries to broaden the base. The countries in which they were brought up include Canada, New Zealand, China, India, Nigeria, Syria and Zimbabwe.
Not surprisingly, a common thread across almost all essays is the immersion in reading during childhood. As Doris Lessing puts it, “The delicious excitement of it all…the discoveries…the surprises…I was intoxicated a good part of the time.” Half a century later, J.G. Ballard remembers his first readings of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe: “I can sense quite clearly my feelings at the time—all the wide-eyed excitement of a seven-year-old, and that curious vulnerability, the fear that my imagination might be overwhelmed by the richness of these invented worlds.”
It was a pleasant surprise to find Richmal Crompton’s wonderful William books figuring so prominently. Here’s Sue Townsend after reading the first one: “There should have been a hundred-gun salute. The Red Arrows should have flown overhead. The night sky should have blazed with fireworks. I joined the library thirsting after more William books.”
The adventures of Captain W.E. Johns’s flying hero are another favourite. “I worshipped Biggles,” says Jane Gardam, with John Carey and Ronald Harwood expressing similar sentiments. Other titles that often come up are those by Enid Blyton and P.G. Wodehouse, as well as Jane Eyre, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Winnie-the-Pooh.
The oral tradition is among the pleasures recalled. Buchi Emecheta writes that when she was a child, reading was never a major activity in her part of Nigeria, but storytelling was. Rana Kabbani describes the “harem world” of her youth in Damascus, where women were constantly telling stories. In this society, “books seemed to raise one above the mundane, above the chit-chat of the nightly gatherings, or so one little prig liked to think.”
Similarly, Candia McWilliam paints a picture of her father chain-smoking as he read to her, so taken up with the wickedness of Beatrix Potter’s Samuel Whiskers that he might burn his fingers or her nightdress. In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s typically precocious recollection, when he read aloud to others, he was merely reciting by heart: “I had followed the words often enough, after badgering people to go through that particular page aloud.” When “the miracle of literacy” finally took place, “it turned an unlettered brute into a book-ridden lunatic.”
Elsewhere, A.S. Byatt vividly illustrates the impact of fables and folklore: “The roots of my thinking are a tangled maze of myths, folktales, legends, fairy stories. Robin Hood, King Arthur, Alexander of Macedon, Achilles and Odysseus, Apollo and Pan, Loki and Baldur, Sinbad and Haroun al Rashid, Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast, Tom Bombadil and Cerberus.” The difference between these stories and tendentious tales for children is clear from Ruth Rendell’s dismissal of Hans Christian Anderson. “He was too much of a moralist for me. His stories mostly carried a message and a threat.”
On a more familiar note, Gita Mehta recalls the cries of pavement booksellers: “Latest from Plato. The Republic. Also, James Hadley Chase and P. G. Wodehouse. You want Catcher in the Rye, sahib? Mad Magazine?” Her favourite library occupied three rungs on a fire escape behind a Kolkata emporium where “you could read as many Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey novels as you could stomach.” Because of subsidised Russian classics, reading Agatha Christie, and Georges Simenon was a natural corollary to reading Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Gorky.
Across the man-made border, Kamila Shamsie, entranced by Peter Pan, remembers her mother telling her that Neverland was on a series of small islets just off the coast of Karachi. Like many others, it was when she encountered Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children that “the English-language novel and the world around me came together in a great starburst of imagination and humour, and made it possible to imagine a space for myself as a writer within the changing world of Anglophone fiction.”
Reading, of course, can be much more than just pleasure. In Jeanette Winterson’s words: “For some, perhaps for many, books are spare time. For me, the rest of life is spare time: I wake and sleep language.” John Fowles is glummer, though: “Talking about reading is like talking about flight in a world rapidly becoming flightless; like raving about music to the deaf, or about painting to the colour-blind.” Keep flying.