A long time ago, when I was 17 or 18, I used to do a lot of reading. It was a long ride in on the train from home to work, and back again, and I did, then, have the time to read.
Having my own money, I was able to buy my own books, and these generally ran to mysteries and thriller, and naval stories. The latter took my interest for a while because I had notions of becoming an Ensign until I realized I needed better educational qualifications and a higher level of fitness.
So much for those aspirations, so I just read about what it would be like.
I worked with a number of interesting characters, including one, a chap who was about 25, really old and wise to a 17-year-old, who deplored my reading choices.
It seemed Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Brian Callison, Hammond Innes, and Alistair Maclean didn’t quite fit the reading profile he thought I should follow.
Well, I hadn’t been to university, and I hadn’t realized there was such a thing as English, or any other, literature. He was adamant that if I wanted to call myself a ‘man of books’ I had to read ‘proper’ books.
So, what eventuated, was a reading list.
If I wanted to converse with him on literature, I had to read every book on the list.
And I wanted to appear, at least, slightly more sophisticated, than the reader of penny dreadfuls. I didn’t know what that meant, and in those days there was no internet, so it remained for a long time a phrase of mystery.
But, the reading list,
‘Hard Times,’ and ‘Bleak House’ by Charles Dickens
‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by T.E. Lawrence, yes, that famous man who was better known as Lawrence of Arabia
‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy, which fuelled a desire to read most of Hardy’s books
‘The Day of the Triffids’, by John Wyndham, a rather strange addition to the list since it was science fiction. I suspect he was a closet Trekker.
‘To the Lighthouse’, by Virginia Wolff
‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen
‘And Quietly Flows the Don’ by Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov. I had great fears that I would have to learn Russian, but that wasn’t the only shock, so was the size of the book
‘War and Peace’, talking about long books, by Leo Tolstoy
‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and thereby concluding the Russian classics
Of course, your definition of literature can change, and as a result of reading all of these books, and it took quite some time, and this led to selecting a more interesting collection of books to read, which he, in some small measure, took the credit for.
I discovered R.F Delderfield, and the trilogy, ‘A Horseman Riding By’, which led to ‘The Headmaster’, ‘The Avenue’, and ‘God is an Englishman’
C.S. Forester and the Hornblower series, but who also wrote several mysteries
F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Great Gatsby’ as well as several other classics
Eric Ambler, master of thrillers from the ’30s and ’50s, particularly spy novels, and was probably the one who introduced me to the world of espionage
and last but not least, Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’.
But, let’s not forget the most important point being made here. This is not a list that I recommend for everyone to read for any reason. I do not have the wisdom or the right to say what is good or what is bad, only what it did for me.
Am I wiser or smarter? Who knows. All I knew was that reading opened up new horizons for me, showing me there were other worlds out there other than the humdrum miserable existence I had back then.
And it fuelled a desire to create new fictional worlds that I could immerse myself in, where I could be anything other than who I was. After all, isn’t that why we read, to get away from the tedium of our real lives and become someone else, if only for a few hours?