Fourteen writers on their childhood reading

  
 
 
“Not only can I remember, half a century later, my first readings of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, but I can sense quite clearly my feelings at the time – all the wide-eyed excitement of a seven-year-old, and that curious vulnerability, the fear that my imagination might be overwhelmed by the richness of these invented worlds. Even now, simply thinking about Long John Silver on the waves of Crusoe’s island stirs me far more than reading the original text. I suspect that these childhood tales have long since left their pages and taken on a second life inside my head.”
 
– J G Ballard, The Pleasure of Reading,
ed. Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992)
 
 
 
“Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives … In childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune-teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future.”
 
 – Graham Greene, Collected Essays
 (Penguin, 1969)
 
 
 
“The first book I ever treasured was a cloth book, a children’s book perhaps, and though I have no memory of the story I do think of it as something sacred … I was more addicted to words than to pictures. Words were talismanic, transfiguring, making everything clearer, and at the same time more complex. Words were the sluice gates to the mind and to the emotions. Reading for me, then as now, is not a pleasure, but something far more visceral, a brush with terror.”
 
– Edna O’Brien, The Pleasure of Reading,
ed. Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992)
 
 
 
“In that box were Gulliver’s Travels, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Dick Whittington, Greek and Roman Myths, and best of all, Norse Tales. Why did the Norse tales strike so deeply into my soul? I do not know, but they did. I seemed to remember seeing Thor swing his mighty short-handled hammer as he spread across the sky in rumbling thunder, lightning flashing from the tread of his steeds and the wheels of his chariot … That held majesty for me …”
 
– Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road
(Harper Perennial, 1996)
 
 
 
“The best part of me was always at home, within some book that had been laid flat on the table to mark my place, its imaginary people waiting for me to return and bring them to life. That was where the real people were, the trees that moved in the wind, the still, dark waters.”
 
– Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life
(Ballantine Books, 1998)
 
 
 

  
 
“As I grew older, the images of bleak yet rapturous imposture – particularly in fairy tales – aroused an inescapable sensation of wanting to write. Princesses turned into mute swans, princes into beasts. Think of the eerie lure of the Pied Piper! I began to pursue that truly voluptuous sensation in middle childhood.”
 
– Cynthia Ozick, The Book That Changed My Life,
ed. Diane Osen (Modern Library, 2002)
 
 
 
“No days, perhaps, of all our childhood are ever so fully lived as those that we had regarded as not being lived at all: days spent wholly with a favourite book. Everything that seemed to fill them full for others we pushed aside, because it stood between us and the pleasures of the Gods.”
 
– Marcel Proust, ‘Days of Reading’, A Selection of His Miscellaneous
Writings, trans. Gerard Hopkins (A Wingate, 1948)
 
 
 
“Books provide the most helpful of road maps for (an) inner journey. They show us the tracks of fellow travelers, footprints left by earlier pilgrims who have trod the path that stretches before us. Their luminosity helps to light our way. As we read we realize that we are not alone.”
 
 – Terry W Glaspey, Books and Reading: A Book of Quotations,
ed. Bill Bradfield (Dover, 2002)
 
 
 
“Remember the feeling when turning the page was almost too much to bear? As adults grown weary of clichés and redesigned storylines, we too easily forget the initial jolt, the power, almost drug-like, of those first readings, when imagination flared up and seemed capable of consuming us.”
 
 – Roger McGough, The Pleasure of Reading,
ed. Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992)
 
 
 
“In every corner of Palermo (I have been told) knives and guitars were teeming, but those who filled my mornings and gave a horrid pleasure to my nights were Stevenson’s blind buccaneer, dying under the horses’ hoofs, and the traitor who abandoned his friend on the moon, and the time traveler who brought from the future a faded flower, and the spirit incarcerated for centuries in Solomon’s jar, and the veiled prophet of Khorassan who hid behind precious stones and silk, his face ravaged by leprosy.”
 
– Jorge Luis Borges, Evaristo Carriego,
trans. Rodríguez Monegal (Gleizer, 1955)
  
 
 

  
 
“Let me give you, let me share with you, the City of Invention. For what novelists do … is to build Houses of the Imagination, and where houses cluster together there is a city. And what a city this one is, Alice! It is the nearest we poor mortals can get to the Celestial City: it glitters and glances with life, and gossip, and colour, and fantasy: it is brilliant, it is illuminated, by day by the sun of enthusiasm and by night by the moon of inspiration … And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore …”
 
– Fay Weldon, Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen
(Carroll & Graf, 1991)
 
 
 
“What I sought in books was imagination. It was depth, depth of thought and feeling; some sort of extreme of subject matter; some nearness to death; some call to courage. I myself was getting wild; I wanted wildness, originality, genius, rapture, hope. I wanted strength, not tea parties. What I sought in books was a world whose surfaces, whose people and events and days lived, actually matched the exaltation of the interior life. There you could live.”
 
– Annie Dillard, An American Childhood
(Harper and Row, 1986)
 
 
 
“At any moment the impulse might seize me; and then, if the book was in reach, I had only to walk the floor, turning the pages as I walked, to be swept off full sail on the sea of dreams. The fact that I cold not read added to the completeness of the illusion, for from those mysterious blank pages I could evoke whatever my fancy chose.”
 
– Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance
(Simon and Schuster, 1998)
 
 
 
“I lay voluptuously on my stomach on the big bed, blissfully alone, and I felt a thrill which has never left me as I realized that the words coming magically from my lips were mine to say or not say, read or not. It was one of the peaks of my whole life. Slowly my eyes rode across the lines of print, and the New World smiled. It was mine, not something to beg for, book in hand, from anyone who cold read when I could not. The door opened, and without hesitation I walked through.”
 
– MFK Fisher, Among Friends
(Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004)

3 thoughts on “Fourteen writers on their childhood reading

  1. Winn Smith

    Roger McGough’s comments, above, strike me as particularly accurate. It’s a shame we can’t know, when reading as children, the resonance those books will have later on. I’m now reading my way through a large chunk of my childhood books again – and I’m enjoying every minute. Thanks for posting this, it was a nice jolt to the memory.

  2. dale

    Wow! A wonderful collection. Dillard’s recollection is closest to mine. I wanted people and events that matched the surges of my hope and despair, my love and hatred. What moved me most in my childhood reading are things that now I think of as blemishes — gropings after grandeur, Sturm und Drang and purplish prose.

    I suppose I will never have reading experiences like those of my childhood, ever again. I’ll never be able to give my heart away like that again.

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