Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Behind the Scenes at the Library.. A lifetime of good reading


Lewis Carroll's Poems in the Children's Treasury

It was National Library Day on 8th of February and in honour of that a few of us* decided to blog our top 20 books. You are more than welcome to join in the fun.

An impossible job to select just twenty books out of over a half century's reading - so I have picked the ones that first came to mind that mark different periods of my life.  They are not the 'best' books and whilst I might not always remember their storyline - they bring back vivid memories of my own!
I realised that I was waffling on so long about each book that I've decided to split the twenty into two different blogs, so here are my first ten!

As Julie Andrew's  suggested Let's start at the very beginning - a very good place to start

1. The Illustrated Treasury of Children's Literature

I wanted a book to reflect the joy and diversity of reading I experienced as a child. Visits to our local library were a fortnightly family affair, choosing two or three books to tide us over 'til the next visit. I loved the slightly musty, woody smell of the small library and the excitement of finding a book with the promise of a new world to immerse myself in. One of my particular pleasures was to read whilst eating which OldMaSock could hardly object to as PaSock was doing the same.

My favourite book was a Christmas present called 'Once Long Ago' a beautifully illustrated book comprising of fairy tales, myths and legends from around the world. I still have it - a little battered as it is now over fifty years old and has done a circuit of my nieces before returning to my shelves.

Beautiful though 'Once Long Ago' is, my personal vote from this era goes to the fabulous Children's Treasury - a bit of a cheat as it is a book crammed full of poems and pieces from other works and includes stories from Aesops Fables, Alice in Wonderland (with illustrations by Sir John Tenniel leaving me with a proper picture of Alice)  and a myriad poems that I learnt by heart for the pleasure of it and still remember. Alongside Wordsworth's 'Daffodils',  'The Fairies' by William Allingham,  various pieces by Robert Louis Stevenson... was 'The Goops' by Gelett Burgess, a family favourite description of the children, a poem close to my heart which I passed on to my nieces.

2. The Odyssey

I've included Homer's sequel to the Iliad (which I also read in translation) - a cracking good adventure story and the only reason I continued with taking Latin up to 'O' level (which in the event, I failed miserably).  It also represents my love of Greek and Roman legends which I read avidly and, over the years,  has provided the answer to many a pub quiz question.

3.  Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales of Shakespeare

I had to have some Shakespeare in my list and pay tribute to an author who has enriched our language in so many ways - not to mention lent his words to a thousand book titles.  We did 'Midsummer Night's Dream', 'As you Like it', 'The Tempest' and 'Anthony and Cleopatra' in detail at school - the latter containing one of my favourite quotes "My salad days when I was green in judgement".  Rather than single out a particular play I'm going for 'Shakespeare Lite' - the Lamb's Tales of Shakespeare turn some overlong plays into short stories.  Whilst the writing may not be glorious they do give you the gist of many of Shakespeare's plays and familiarise you with the characters. If you throw in a few quotes from the genuine product along the way, knowing these will allow you to fool people that you have read all the originals.

4. Lord of the Rings (early 70s)

This, as we all know, is a much better film than book. However, turgid though J.R.R. Tolkien's writing is, with its long and tedious meaderings, I have read it twice.  The first when supposedly swatting for my 'A' levels I swapped that tedium to escape into the world of wizards, elves and hobbits. LOR was popular with the young hippy 'loons and afghan coat wearing' generation who at that time were my companions of choice.  A poster of Gandalf's horse 'ShadowFax' adorned my bedroom wall replacing that of Leonard Whiting as the heartbreakingly beautiful and tragic Romeo from Zefferelli's film. Even then I only got as far as the fight with Shelob before the books got too battle driven for my tastes.  Many years later, when I was first struck down with ME and stuck to the sofa for a few years, I re-read it.  The writing hadn't improved but my patience with it had and I finally made it through to the end.The Hobbit was always the better book.

5.  Prince in the Scarlet Robe (early 70s)

From LOR I moved onto Science Fantasy and read pretty much everything Michael Moorcock wrote. He created more new worlds in my head, surreal obsidian landscapes, tragic heroes and heroines who pretty much all died nasty and lingering soul-destroying deaths, all fitting depressingly well into my overwhelming teenage angst.

6. In Watermelon Sugar (mid 70s)

After fleeing Wales and a reading diet that had for years been an indigestible mix of Wilbur Smith adventure novels, Jean Plaidy historical romances, and some extremely questionable (but popular at the time) novels like 'Mandingo' by Kyle Onstott , I landed in Brighton. A new start, a new me and a whole host of new ideas thrown at me every day by virtue of working with clever, articulate people at the University.  My 'Daily Mail' indoctrination (caused by reading my parents daily copy of the insidious paper) quickly thrown out the window to be replaced by my own thoughts, formed with the help of kind, intelligent, people, who patiently and gently introduced me to a different way of thinking both personal and political. And new books too - I was lent 'In Watermelon Sugar' by a colleague and I remember the strange and beautiful writing which led me to read more of Richard Brautigan's books. I re-read 'The Hawkline Monster' recently and it was still as gently, mesmerizingly, weird and wonderful.

7. Fear of Flying (late 70s early 80s)

A difficult choice between Erica Jong's 'zipless fuck' book and Marilyn French's 'The Women's Room'. Whilst I hadn't considered myself a feminist I certainly wasn't conforming to the 'set' female norms of
get a man, get married, have kids and be a good little housewife that so many other girls of my generation had fallen into - but equally I hadn't discovered what exactly my identity as a woman was.
I remember reading Marilyn French's book whilst lying on a beach on the Costa Brava and feeling a new and unleashed rage against the unjust treatment of women by men.  This was somewhat ironic as my long term boyfriend, who was holidaying with me, took the brunt of my anger. (He was a gentle guy who I bossed around mercilessly and finally dumped because his idea of an easy life was to continually 'sit on the fence'.) 'The Women's Room' was another slightly turgid book which nevertheless made an impression - but Fear of Flying was amusing, ridiculous and feisty and gave me a whole new outlook on taking control of my sexuality and the vagaries of German toilets (although it should be noted that until now those were never linked together!).

8. Frenchman's Creek

To balance the growing feminist in me I was also an incurable romantic.  I read countless novels of the 'one-up from the bodice-ripping Mills and Boon' kind but not quite so well written as Jane Eyre. They would invariably based in some gothic, Cornish castle with a mad woman locked in the attic who would hamper the course of true love between the new, innocent, governness and the dark, brooding Lord of the Manor.  I enjoyed all of  Du Maurier's books and whilst the obvious choice to illustrate this might be Rebecca I always found her a bit of a wet lettuce. The heroine of Frenchman's Creek was more to my taste. 

9. Pride and Prejudice (mid 80s)

It was about this time that I revisited Jane Austen who I had given up on after the Dementors, that served as teachers at my Grammar school, sucked the life and soul out of her books and indeed any other form of learning.  It was years before I returned to reading 'good' literature but when I realised how amusing, slyly witty and fun Austen was I devoured every one of her books in short succession and was left wanting more.

10. Hons and Rebels (early 90s)

A real life eccentric family, the Mitford girls wrote with such charm and honesty they overrode any class barriers.  I would defy anyone not to become totally immersed in Jessica Mitford's account of her childhood warring with her 'fascist' sisters and her own journey towards renouncing her privileged background, becoming a communist and running off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Whilst Jessica was my favourite the other Mitford girls provided a range of reading that engaged my imagination over the years.

So that's the end of my first ten books and I have waffled on enough for now.. a short break until I publish my last ten.


*If you are interested in others book choices then visit the following blogs.. you may just get some new reading inspiration.

Vegplotting for some background on this theme


Anonymous said...

Such a great idea for a post. I'm a huge fan of beautifully illustrated books and the ones in the children's treasury look like my kind of thing. I've never heard of the Goops before but it's a poem that I would have liked to have handed over to the parents of a child last year. She must have been about 10 but was very clearly a 'goop'. I really fancy Hons and Rebels. I've heard quite a bit about the Mitfords but never read anything by them. I'm currently compiling my own list. Think a notepad will be useful to write down all the book titles I'm no doubt going to want to get hold of.

Anonymous said...

It's difficult isn't, it having to choose 20. LOR I only read for the first time a couple of years ago and have re-read them since. The Goops sounds like a fun read. Probably my favourite children's books was the Little House on the Prairie series, so so much better than the simpering, annoying TV series they made out of it later.


Anonymous said...

Half a century? You don't look a day older than 29!
I also loved the odyssey, but my copy is a translation, as we didn't do Latin at school. I think you'll find that it is an outdated language, ergo is not much use to us now.
Frenchman's creek is a great one!
I've never read any Austen. I 'm guilty of presuming they were a bit girly; Mea Culpa!
My fav Shakespeare to read is Hamlet (I also love the fact that there are so many famous phrases from it that are still in use), My favourite to watch is A Midsummer Nights Dream. Which isn't laugh out loud funny per se, but done well does raise a nice chuckle.

After thinking about the selection some more I have thought of a few omissions, which I won't mention till after the second part of your Magnum opus, as I don't want to influence you.

Anna said...

I think that I would enjoy reading 'The Illustrated Treasury of Children's Literature' now if it should still be available. Had to chuckle reading your observations about LOR as I was one of that afghan coat wearing generation. Look forward to reading the second installment :)

Arabella Sock said...

Wellywoman - Hons and Rebels is a must read and when you get to 'know' the family you may be drawn in to Nancy Mitford's writing too.

Helle - I found remembering and appreciating the books I read as a child easier than picking out those I have read more recently. I only watched a few of Little House on the Prairie, perhaps it simpered a bit much for me.

PianoLearner - thank you you tell the best lies. My copy of the Odyssey was a translation - you didn't think I actually read Latin did you? Frenchman's Creek has an ending that I didn't want but which was just a little bit vague so I re-read the end several times until I had transformed it into a scenario that made me happier.

Anna - I never had my own afghan coat (I did have a blue velvet jacket which I made out of curtain velvet and sequins sewn up the side of my flared cords). I did frequently have to sit next to people in the pub who wore very smelly afghans which were considerable worse after being caught in a downpour.

VP said...

The Odyssey was on my long list - I'm loving how these posts are adding to each others lists. We're going to have a stonking long list of new discoveries to read and old favourites to reKindle (scuse pun!) in the coming months :)

I went for The Hobbit - as you say the much better book. I suspect if Tolkein had edited down LOR, it may have surpassed it.

I loathed Austen at school, particularly P&P (this was in the pre-Mrs Schiff days when I was considered to be a duffer at English, so that probably contributed to the problem) - for some reason I took umbrage with Austen's use of -th dragoons as if naming the regiment was an official secret or something. But I have enjoyed the film and TV adaptations, so perhaps I should try these again