14: Always – Reading

For several years either side of my tenth birth­day, my parents persisted in complaining that I was not reading enough. They thought I was do­ing something detrimental to my character, to my chances of well-being, or perhaps just ruining any hope of being nor­mal, because I was not read­ing the classics. They wanted me to read The Wind in the Willows, Black Beauty, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Treas­ure Island, The Secret Garden, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Instead, I read books about plan­ets and stars, about the geology of the earth, about animals and the great explorers. Oh, what a disappointment I was! When I read Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, captivated and enthralled, they told me that these books were intended for little girls. I kept it secret from them, when later I read The Pilgrim’s Progress, just in case. And when I read Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition, I told no one, but wandered in secret upon the wide Pacific Ocean of my provoked imagination, jumping and startled as periodically flying fish would cast themselves upon the matting of the deck and upon the cabin roof. It was at this time that I also read Kon-Tiki and I by Eric Hessel­berg, which is his anno­tated sketchbook – brim­ming with wonder­fully observed illustrations – of his time on the expedi­tion. But this too was disapproved of, because seeing the pictures, my parents concluded that this book must be intended for young chil­dren. If you are not a stupid person, but you are raised by stupid peo­ple, life is hell…

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My parents must have seen my private library, growing with each new secret purchase as it stretched sideways across the top of the chest of drawers in my bedroom, but they gave up commenting on my books because they were the wrong sort. Later, when I put The Lord of the Rings on my Christmas present list for 1974, they remarked that I was too old for Tolkien’s fantasy. Tolkien had been my English teacher’s tutor at university, and on the day the great man died, my teacher came into the classroom weeping.

This is why I always encounter books with a sense of guilt and foreboding – for there always seems to be a parent present who disapproves of my choice. When you are told frequently enough that you are on the wrong path, you will inevitably begin to feel lost. And I have always felt so terri­bly lost.

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