The books I remember best
A friend posted on Facebook, asking about good books to recommend for an 11-year-old boy who doesn’t read enough. I mentioned an author or two, but didn’t think much more about it. Then, just this evening, I asked myself what I remembered reading as a boy. I mean, not whatall I read, but what books I remembered
reading. The important ones, the ones that made an impression. So, herewith are my reflections on the early days of my love affair with books.
One of my favorite books as a child was Thornton W. Burgess’s Old Mother West Wind
stories. My mother read these to me. I still have the very book she read to me out of, and I have re-read it as an adult. Like all really good children’s books, I enjoyed it as an adult as much as I did as a child. Another book I remember reading as a young child was And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street,
by Dr. Seuss, one of his very earliest efforts. We borrowed it from the library, as I recall; I didn’t come to own a copy until a few years ago. We also had a young people’s science book called Introducing Dinosaurs,
which held my interest.
As I grew able to read books for myself, especially from say, 4th Grade on, I borrowed books from the library, I bought books from the Scholastic Book Service through our school, and I wandered through my parents’ library. Some of those I particularly remember were The Arrow Book of Ghost Stories
and The Arrow Book of Famous Stories.
The latter introduced me to Sir Walter Raleigh (he of the plush cape) and Robert the Bruce (and the Spider). I read Homer Price,
by Robert McCloskey – a book I still have. I read The Indian Mummy Mystery,
one of a young adult detective series by Troy Nesbit, and Trouble on Titan,
by Alan E. Nourse, a young adult science fiction novel. Both these I must have borrowed from the library, since I don’t have them anymore. We had an American history book in magazine format called America on Parade,
which I still have. And I was fascinated by a college-level history of England that my mother had, because it had a map of the Heptarchy (the “seven kingdoms” of the Anglo-Saxons) in it! Maps always increased my interest. Sometime around 5th Grade I tried to read Moby-Dick,
but eventually gave up and let the White Whale escape. I also started The Hound of the Baskervilles,
which scared me so much I had to put it down for almost a year before finishing it.
As I entered Junior High, I remember reading An Introduction to Shakespeare
from SBS. At the same time, I was reading actual Shakespeare in class. We read Macbeth
in 8th grade. My sister got engaged and her fiancé gave me a stack of his old paperbacks. These included a bunch of Tarzan novels and the entire John Carter of Mars series. My interest in science fiction continued with a lot of Ace paperbacks. I don’t remember one particular title of Andre Norton’s, but I know I read several of her novels, as well as Emil Petaja’s and others. Junior high also found me all but memorizing Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.
I couldn’t wait to get to high school, where I could take Latin!
The summer after my 8th Grade year, I discovered The Lord of the Rings.
I have written before of the profound impact this had on me, and I won't repeat that here. But from LOTR
I went on to E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros,
George Macdonald’s Lilith
and many other titles from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. My reading expanded in all directions exponentially, and to recall even the most important things I read in high school would be too many to list.
One other thing I read – voraciously – from my first school days on, was comic books.
My favorites were Walt Disney comics, especially tales of Scrooge McDuck (all the economics I knew before my fiftieth year I learned from Uncle Scrooge – and a lot of my geography). But I read all kinds of comic books. I was into super-heroes, particularly those of the D.C. Comics stable; Marvel comics only became interesting to me in late high school. And there was a line of Classics Illustrated Comics
back then, through which I made the acquaintance of much world literature (and which formed the basis of more than one book report – Don’t tell anybody!). I have always defended reading comic books, though I don't think much of the comics that are being produced these days.
My parents bought a set of the World Book
encyclopedia and bought the yearbooks for it as they came out. I spent hours upon hours just browsing this. Today, instead of encyclopedias, we have the internet. With the World Book
came a set of books called Childcraft,
which had lots of stories -- and especially poetry -- in them. I particularly remember reading "The Highwayman," by Alfred Noyes. We gave the Childcraft
set to Anna for the grandcubs to grow up with. My mother also had a copy of Best Loved Poems of the American People,
which had belonged to her father. I still have that in my library and read in it from time to time.
J.R.R. Tolkien said that children's books, like their clothes, should allow for growth. No doubt there are some books that a given child is not ready for. But in that case, he probably won't finish it, as I couldn't finish Moby-Dick.
On the other hand, if he wants to read it, he should be allowed to. That's the way one learns. I grew up in a house full of books, and no restrictions were placed upon my explorations. That's the way I raised my children, and the way my grandchildren are being raised. The best way to raise a reader is to be raised by readers.