Writer Jane Goodall regains the freedom of unadulterated literary pleasure.
"I read nothing but children's books for a whole year."
When I was in my early twenties, and recently graduated with a literature degree from London University, I moved to a town in the midlands where I made some new friends. One of these was Mandy, who had just finished at art school and was spending her days painting murals all over the walls of an old farmhouse where she was living.
Her pictures told stories. They featured misty mountains, lakes of fire, caves sparkling with crystal, and groups of shadowy figures travelling across the landscape. As I watched her paint, we talked, and I told her about some of the books I’d been studying. My head was full of Dickens and Tolstoy and (of course) Jane Austen, and some rather more challenging works, like John Bunyan’s Holy War, and the essays of Samuel Johnson. I was used to being among groups of students who boasted about what they read, but Mandy wasn’t like that and listened without comment. One morning, she stood back from her work, paintbrush in hand, and just said, casually, ‘I only read children’s books.’
I remember being baffled at this, perhaps even a bit shocked, and thinking that perhaps I should try to introduce her to the wonderful world of adult fiction. Next time I saw her, I was prepared with a small pile of books, but so was she. I forget what I had chosen for her, though I remember distinctly what she gave me: The Wizard of Earthsea, Watership Down and The Secret Garden.
|Set aside your expectations and read as a child.|
Looking back on it, I can see how that time (the early 1970s) was something of a golden age for children’s novels. There was a burgeoning array of new stories and reissued classics and every few months there seemed to be a new writer to follow. I read nothing but children’s books for a whole year.
As a year in the life of the mind, it stands out even now, over thirty years later, as one of the best I’ve had. This is not to diminish the value of the previous three years, during which I had been engaged in intensive analytical study of literary form and language. I had been well taught, and loved all that I’d learned in the higher education environment, and I’ve never been someone to shy away from a critical approach to things, but as I plunged into these worlds of magic and mystery, of talking animals and child heroes, I realize now that I was connecting with forms of wisdom that can never be displaced by the social realities of the modern adult world.
The technical knowledge of literature I’d acquired was not on hold, it was quietly attending in the background, as another kind of learning was under way. In some ancient sense, story makes children of us all, and while adult fiction may lose touch with this heritage, stories for children can always take us back to it. They are drawn from the well of all the great sagas of our deep past. In rediscovering the pleasures of reading as a child, I was also renewing an awareness that story is bigger than we are, because it pushes at the boundaries of what we are and what we know. Through strange adventures in forests and mountains, peopled by magicians and talking animals, our minds can be opened to the mysteries of our own place as a species amongst others, on a small planet in a vast universe, where what matters more than anything is to act well, with the best intelligence we can acquire, especially when circumstances get rough.
As we look back on this most recent year, we may think that circumstances in general do look pretty rough. I have heard people say that adult audiences flocking to see the new movie of The Hobbit, and choosing it as holiday reading, are engaged in a form of escapism. Quite the contrary, I’d say. This resurgence of interest in Tolkien’s mythical sagas is part of a larger renaissance of story in our culture. Many of the novels I lost myself in during that year of magical reading are being republished, and there are newer ones to broaden the field of adventure.
Going through the shelves in a local bookshop, I picked out four to recommend to you. If your holiday reading shelf is already overflowing, they will wait, and may happily fill a few moments of leisure in more pressured times.
From the ‘vintage’ collection, Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams, is a novel about rabbits, though that hardly describes it. This extraordinary book evokes a world of creatures who know the earth with an intimacy our own species has lost, but it is also a world riven by violent territorial conflict, and redeemed by acts of loyalty that involve extreme courage. It is a tour de force of writing, and each of the central characters has a personality and style of speech that evokes the animal nature of the rabbit as much as the human traits that draw readers into a deep identification. Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) is a wonderfully plotted story about defeating the powers of evil in a world where human civilization is in a state of dark confusion. It is also a hugely entertaining novel, with a Dickensian flair for the comedy of villainous anti-heroes.
|Story makes children of us all.|
(As a post script, Mandy still lives in the farmhouse and has had four children who grew up surrounded by fiery lakes and misty mountains.)
Dr Jane Goodall is a novelist and literary essayist and critic. Now based in Queensland, she has taught, lived and read for many years in both England and Australia. She is a regular contributor to the Universal Heart Book Club. You will find the books that Jane suggests - and perhaps some of your own past favourites - via the bookstore links (above right). A small % of sales is returned to this Book Club. We also welcome your comments as well as your reading memories and experiences!