Confessions of a literature addict

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Was Harry Potter’s 20th birthday to blame? Or the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death? Or merely the ageing process? It’s hard to decide, but in a life quite possibly ruined by literature, I have started remembering some of the books I read in childhood.

Greek Orthodox priestEnid Blyton had not then fallen under a cloud (I’m pleased to note she has since re-emerged into the light) and I was a fan. But I was also devoted to Mary Grant Bruce and her rural Billabong series; then there was Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians, with its unforgettable ending: noble teenager Judy is killed by a falling tree but saves her baby brother.

I was born pre-TV, and into a family of auto-didactic and fanatical readers with catholic tastes. And radio was important: when the ABC’s Argonauts dramatised Captain Marryat’s Children of the New Forest, my head and I seemed to spend a lot of time in the England of the Civil War; I was disappointed when my mother declared that our family would undoubtedly have been Roundheads, for I naturally considered Cavaliers much more romantic.

Impressed by my reaction to this work, my maternal grandmother went to considerable trouble and expense to order me an elegant copy of the book: I can still remember the satisfyingly solid navy-blue covers.

My paternal grandmother was addicted to swashbuckling adventure, and therefore a constant reader of writers like Zane Grey, even naming her only daughter after a ZG character. The prolific and workmanlike E.V. Timms and Nevil Shute were also high on her library list. Two of her presents to me were in an older but similar mould: Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! and The Swiss Family Robinson, by pastor Johann David Wyss.

Both these books were wildly popular in their time, which was well before mine: a village in Devon, now a popular tourist spot, was named after Kingsley’s best-seller, and Wyss’s book has been filmed more than once.

Life was simpler then, and adults had firm ideas about values and conduct, so it is hardly surprising that books deemed suitable for children conveyed Moral Messages: Pollyanna, the 1913 novel that popularised the ‘glad game’, must have been the most unsubtle example in the genre, but I remember reading it avidly.

My favourite literary heroine, however, was undoubtedly tomboy Jo in Little Women. At only 15, Jo was the budding writer who boosted the family finances while chaplain father was away with the Union forces during the American civil war. First she sold her luxuriant hair, and then began to have success in placing her short stories, never short on melodrama, with various magazines.

 

"One of the privileges was, I see now, the opportunity to use imagination, which capacity future children would have inexorably altered by the shortcuts of TV and computers."

 

I went on to read Little Women and its sequel Good Wives at least 13 times. And this addiction helps explain my very tardy conversion to reading on screen, for no tablet or Kindle can ever hope to match the physical appeal of my one-volume copy of these works, given to me by my antique dealer great-uncle.

It was a heavy tome, bound in dull maroon imitation leather and with beautiful parchment-like gold-edged pages. It was also copiously illustrated with delicate black and white etchings. Goodness knows how many people had read this treasure before I had my many turns, but those were the days when books were meant to last: no page ever came even close to loosening from the sturdy spine. And I continue to value the book as object: the design, font, cover, even the smell of a volume are all important.

Childhood never really goes away, and now I think that my nostalgia is part of a yearning for a time of safety and certainty, or at least the illusion of both: my family was certainly not rich, but I was a privileged, happy child.

One of the privileges was, I see now, the opportunity to use imagination, which capacity future children would have inexorably altered by the shortcuts of TV and computers. I also see that reading provided both an escape from and an expansion of my small world.

And that process can go on until almost the last minute, as American Will Schwalbe demonstrates in his work The End of Your Life Book Club, a poignant record of the reading and discussions he and his mother shared during her last illness. Put it on your list.

  


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, literature


 

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'Being addicted to literature': in an age of increasing semi-literacy - just enough to use a computer and comment on Twitter - that should be something to boast of. Australians are still, thank God, great readers. Long may it continue!
Edward Fido | 14 August 2017


Your mention of Will Schwalbe towards the end reminded me of a personal confession. During my own mother's last days in Ballarat Base hospital she specifically asked me to read to her sections of A.B. Facey's 'A Fortunate Life' and we had discussions that we hadn't had before. I feel fortunate in more ways than one. Thankyou Gillian, for sharing your own confessions; rich with nostalgia.
John Whitehead | 14 August 2017


Wonderful ! Can't imagine such recollection from the current generation raised on I-phones and various computerised, addictive toys in the years to come. Doubt that many will shed a tear of recollection at the mere mention of a Tweet, a Twitter or a viral U- tube event as Seven Little Australians did for me. Similar great treasures stored on dusty bookshelves for many memorable poems such as Ten Little Steps and Stairs.
john frawley | 14 August 2017


Hello Gillian Thank you for this. Same reading as I had done. Loved Meg as well as Jo. It is a shame these books are not read by children today or can not be found in a lot of libraries. Except Enid Blyton.
Noeline | 14 August 2017


Thank you Gillian for this article which brought back many happy memories despite leaving out Biggles. Enid Blyton's 'Magic Faraway Tree' swiftly converted my grandson from a very resistant reader to one who now has a rule saying reading is to be the last thing on his homework schedule. It is lovely to supervise as he giggles through some of the more modern books but always in print form.
Margaret McDonald | 14 August 2017


"... a life quite possibly ruined by literature" - such a delicious thought - fallen spirits - pedestrian ways given up for flights of fancy! But yes - the literature of our younger reading years defying the deconstructionists who would have us turned out as sexist and racist according to our reading matter - but not so. I read all the Alison UTTLEY "Little Grey Rabbit" series - aged six. There was no pressing need for any Peter Rabbit after that - moving into Blyton - Noddy, Secret Seven, Famous Five, etc - until Mrs Taylor the school librarian pointed me to Capt WE Johns and lots of Biggles. But von Stahlheim and evil Mongolians were no match for a German uncle and Chinese family friends. Many of the books you read, Gillian - denoted as "for girls" I read too. Neighbourhood girls of similar age brought them to my sick bed - I recall reading Little Women and Jo's Boys - along with two other books - in a day. When I was eight RM Ballantyne's The Young Fur Traders and The Coral Island came my way then "boyzone" adventures, books on nature etc all before I was 10.
Jim KABLE | 14 August 2017


Great article. I loved the evocation of childhood. But, not to be negative, spare a thought for those of us who had no books as children, no library in our fundamental primary school, no parents to read bedtime stories. It was a case of catch-up when we got out of the "care" of the state and discovered books for ourselves. I have to say I've managed to get to all the books mentioned in the article - plus a few others: Dickens, Dostoyevski, and Defoe. They waited for me to catch up.
Frank Golding | 14 August 2017


Nothing that comes after can quite match the delight at what we read when we are at our most impressionable.
Jena Woodhouse | 14 August 2017


Sadly! We P/C's,paying Catholics,are still waiting for an apology from those members of the Hierarchy and other clergy,who have let our Catholic Faith down so badly.It's time! Francis took a hand.
N.J.Kelly | 15 August 2017


What a delight to know that we were reading almost the same books and probably unaware of the serious racism of Mary Grant Bruce and snobbery of Blyton. Probably my favourite book before I graduated to Jane Austen was Eric Linklater's Wind on the Moon. A forgotten jewel.
Juliet | 18 August 2017


The world is changing. Not because George, if she weren't a UK citizen, might have all the makings of an opposition leader in the Australian Senate (because all of that women's potential stuff is pretty old hat now) but because there might come a time when scientists can do all their research, like Uncle Quentin, at home, replacing corporate laboratory endeavours with computer programs that can mimic the interaction of things under any material environment. You don't actually have to live with the Large HADRON collider to use the data it creates. You might be able to log in remotely from your cottage in Dorset, just down the pebble beach from the caves where Timmy used to sniff out smugglers, and where unauthorized arrivals from open-borders Europe now stop over en route to Birmingham or wherever.
Roy Chen Yee | 23 August 2017


I totally agree about the physicality of books. How lovely to remember the things that shaped our imagination.Thank you for the reminder.
Maggie | 11 September 2017


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