Today is World Book Day (March 6) - designated by UNESCO to encourage children to discover and explore the world of the written word and for celebrating all things readsome, writerly and bookish. Hurrah!! It's also 3 for Thursday and there are so many ways I could go with this:
- 3 favourite books from childhood or school or college etc;
- 3 favourite books of all time;
- 3 favourite genres / genre novels;
- 3 favourite poetry collections...
I've decided to do a time warp mix - favourite books from childhood, from my teenage years and from adulthood (or my ongoing and, as yet undiscovered, imitation thereof).
Books from Childhood
I've been a voracious reader from an early age and, like most children of my generation, childhood books were dominated by two names - Ladybird and Enid Blyton. I loved the slim hardback Ladybird Books - the classic fairy stories, with their gorgeous illustrations, were my favourites.
There was one mis-step in my collection, a Christmas gift, with an image of the Little Mermaid on the cover that I delved into eagerly. The first page had a picture of some trawlers and a sentence explaining that the primary industry of Copenhagen was fish. Rather than a Hans Christian Andersen's story, Santa had given me a book about Denmark.
I can still remember the overwhelming disappointment, coupled with a deep suspicion that I was being made game of and possibly - inexplicably - on the naughty list. Even though this particular vernacular wouldn't exist for another 30 years, the response of my six year old self can be summed up as 'WTF???' The experience soured my relationship with Ladybird, somewhat.
From Enid Blyton, I fell in love with the Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree and, eventually, one of her lesser known children's mystery series - The Five Find-Outers and Dog (not Blyton's pithiest sobriquet), comprising Fatty, Larry, Daisy, Pips, Bets and Buster, the dog. I identified with Bets, the youngest, who was always being told she was too young or small to join in the adventures. My first FFO book was The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat and then, each week, with pocket money in hand, I'd head to our local supermarket in search of their next adventure.
The love of mystery stories continues to this day.
Books from Teenage Years
I worked my way through most of the Agatha Christie novels as an early teen - good wholesome stuff, barring the body count. The writing of Agatha Christie, and Enid for that matter, was rooted in a green and pleasant land; an England of toasted crumpets and lashings of ginger beer that possibly never really existed. Quiet leafy villages where everyone knew everyone; where quasi-mysterious adventures and outright murders were shocking aberrations.
The first contemporary books I read were Joan Lingard's Kevin and Sadie books, a modern day Romeo and Juliet story set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. I'm second generation Irish - we regularly travelled through Northern Ireland, when I was a child, to visit family in Donegal. Plus, I grew up in Glasgow, a city with more than its fair share of sectarian issues, polarised by being home to two fiercely competitive football clubs - the primarily Catholic, Celtic FC and the primarily Protestant, Rangers FC.
The incendiary political and religious landscape of Lingard's novels was familiar yet intriguing territory. Lingard presented a dangerous adult world to a teenage audience, voicing teenage concerns and their vulnerability in a situation over which they had no control. I'd love to go back and read those books again to see how they stand the test of time.
Books From Recent Years
I read a lot. Every day. Everything from poetry to literary classics to modern literature to crime fiction to bestsellers to historical fiction to romance to young adult to pulp. I've read Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, His Dark Materials... Hell, I even read 50 Shades of Grey. Equally, I've read Umberto Eco, John Fowles, Margaret Atwood, Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Paul Auster, Arundhati Roy, JG Ballard, Kazuo Ishiguro, Gabriel Garcia Marquez... My taste is nothing if not catholic.
I think it's a good thing for a writer to cast the net wide.
If there is a literary phenomenon, I feel compelled to try to understand what all the fuss is about, to learn from it but also to be able analyse / criticise from an informed perspective. Mostly, I just want to be entertained, I want to be transported, I want to believe so wholly and completely in a set of characters that they feel like flesh and blood people I know, who I will join on every step of their journey as a loyal companion.
Many books have made their mark but there is one stand-out reading experience - the Aubrey & Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian; a series of 20 books based on the British Navy, during the Napoleonic Wars, and traversing the globe.
I first saw the film, Master & Commander, with friends - it wasn't my choice and I was fairly ambivalent about the subject matter. Within minutes of the opening credits, I was fascinated. The next day, I bought the first book in the series and a new reading love affair began.
There is much to admire in the books - the technical knowledge of sailing ships, of the British Navy, of the actions of the Napoleonic Wars, the historical context (the American Civil War, the East India Company, the Australian penal colonies) - but what makes them compelling novels is the characterisation, how this body of men and its leaders behave and interact in the cramped, alien world of a ship of war.
Over 20 books, there is plenty of room to explore the nature of the main characters, Jack Aubrey, ship's Captain and Stephen Maturin, ship's Doctor and covert British spy - their relationship with each other, their wives and lovers, the crew, their opponents and enemies. Yet, every supporting character is just as deftly drawn and together they become as familiar and identifiable in their behaviour as life-long friends.
I've read the series through from start to finish twice already and it was a joy. I hope to read it again and again.
Do you have a stand-out reading experience? A favourite book from childhood or a novel that resonates for you? Do share it in the comments below - I'd love to hear about the books you love!