The books I didn’t read…

I’ve written a good deal about the books I read as a child, and this got me thinking about those I didn’t, and the reasons why. Partly it was because in those days, parents didn’t cram culture down their children’s throats as they seem to do now, possibly believing that children were better left to find things out for themselves. Apart from one inspirational teacher when I was nine or ten, teachers didn’t bother either. Weekly visits to the wonderful local libraries were the usual way of satisfying my addiction then, though before the days of plastic wrappers, books were stripped of blurbs and jackets and bound in drab library bindings so you could find out little about them before you took them home. I don’t recall librarians as being particularly friendly or supportive, either. Once, I crept, very scared and timid, into the adult library, where I asked an unsmiling woman if I could reserve a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats. She glowered at me, and told me there was no such book. Eventually though she spoke to a few more unsmiling giants, and in the end one said scornfully, Oh what she means is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Silly me. Luckily this didn’t put me off libraries for life.
I suppose the main series that I didn’t read was the C.S.Lewis lot. Something about that title, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, put me off, I think;it sounded a bit patronising to me. Anyway, I never made my way through those fur coats into the snowy forest. I read the series as an adult, though, not long ago, and wonder whether I would have enjoyed it as a child. I find Lewis’s voice too insistently authorial, and I don’t like Aslan and his mawkish sacrifice. As a child, I was an enthusiastic Catholic who could believe in angels and miracles while distinguishing them from fairy tales and fantasy, but I think I would have resented even then the mixture of fairy-tale stuff and Christian polemic that Lewis sneaks into his story.
Another book I thought I had never read, though I must have done at some later stage, was The Wind In The Willows. I recall that I wasn’t charmed by Ratty and Moley and all that blokeish boaty stuff. But my chief problem was Toad. My child’s logic was upset that he could change size in the course of the book – one moment a toad-sized toad, the next human-sized and dressed as a washerwomen. Sorry, Mr Grahame – it doesn’t work. But I do remember reading some pages of Dream Days, and thinking, this man has no idea how real children talk and behave! So thumbs down to Kenneth Grahame.
I loved Rudyard Kipling, though, and never minded the authorial tone in the Just-so stories. He was on my side, I felt. The best writers were those that didn’t talk down to you, but somehow swept you along in their own enthusiasm for their stories and characters – Lousia M Alcott, Noel Streatfield, Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliff. They were writing for you and with you.
Of course there were books I didn’t read because the subject didn’t appeal – I never liked horses, so no pony tales. Biggles and his ilk were boys’ books – the divisions between girls’ books and boys’ weren’t so marked then, but there were still differences. I never read Just William, though I loved Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings stories. Arthur Ransome’s stories seemed dated, and hadn’t acquired the charm of nostalgia.
I never read The Lord Of the Rings trilogy as a teenager, though I know I would have loved it. Partly because for some reason, I though it was one of those big desert adventure sagas, and partly because when a geekish friend tried to persuade me to read The Hobbit as a starter, I could never get beyond the first few lines. Bilbo Baggins is a bit blokey too, but you somehow forgive him. I think that’s the book I most regret not having read at the right time.
There’s a whole other subject here, and one that I’m not going to tackle at the moment – that’s the subject of the books you’ve got on your shelves as an adult, and just haven’t read: Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead another. They stare reproachfully at me; it’s just a stupid mental block, and one day I’ll overcome it.
There were plenty of books I did read as a child, of course. But sometimes I think about those waiting in the wings that never managed to come my way. What did I miss? I’ll never know.

4 thoughts on “The books I didn’t read…”

  1. Interesting, Frances.
    I actively hated Winnie the Pooh, though grew quite fond of him in much later life. There was a class issue for me – I felt quite deeply that I didn’t belong in the same world as Christopher Robin – which is illogical, because I gobbled up stories about children in great houses/nannies/nurseries etc.
    There was another reason why I hated the Pooh, which I’ve only just recognised – his adventures weren’t real, there were no fearsome baddies, no real danger, which is why I also loathed Arthur Ransome. As for Kenneth Grahame – even a long ago London ballet based on The Wind in the Willows couldn’t convert me. These animals were clearly middle-aged gents in posh London clubs. My literary tastes were for suffering orphans in horrendous orphanages, wicked uncles, serious magic and real danger. Other worlds, like an unromantic Fairyland, came into it too, along with legends and proper fairytales. And I could forgive C S Lewis’s heavy Christianity because he took me and my children into another world via something as commonplace as a wardrobe.

    1. Gents in posh London clubs! Love it, Enid. They were quite alien to me, though oddly I never minded the nannies-and-maids stories, though no one I knew lived that way. There were lots of patronising working class stories though which I hated: The Family from One End St, and the Ameliaranne books. I think lots of writers then wrote about the manners of their own childhoods, which were long out of date by the time we got to read them.

      1. I couldn’t get on with C S Lewis or Arthur Ransome. I DID like Kenneth Grahame, though got stuck on the chapter ‘Like Summer Tempests Came His Tears’. I came late to Lucy Boston (as an adult) and Philippa Pearce – despite thinking ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ is one of the very best children’s stories I am still bothered by the skate in the cupboard. I loved both Jennings and William and was introduced to the latter by my mother who had been persuaded to read a ‘boys’ book’ by a perceptive aunt. I now get great pleasure listening to Martin Jarvis reading William on the radio. I think he is perfect.

        I agree wholeheartedly about librarians. I was frightened by one in Swansea’s Central Library and I only regained confidence when we moved house. Good experiences in Bridgend and Llantwit Major were followed by less helpful encounters in university. I am happy to report that being a student in 2014 is a totally different experience. The librarians I have met recently have been uniformly pleasant, helpful and accommodating. What a difference!

        1. At least things are better these days in that people who deal with children tend to be quite nice to them. It would never have occurred to me to ask a librarian for advice then. I wonder if any of them knew that, and if they did, would they have minded?

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