The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Boys and Girls and Books

At Novacon a couple of weekends ago there was a panel on the best books with which to introduce young readers to SF. Peter Weston, Farah Mendlesohn, Claire Brialey and Julia Daly came up with a wide variety of suggestions. From the floor, I questioned why anyone would want to introduce young readers to SF in the first place. I recounted meeting Lois McMaster Bujold at Minicon a few years ago, and being starstruck to the point of gibbering fannishness. When she asked if my kids read SF, I blurted: 'Good grief, no! I would be very worried if my kids read SF.'

Because, I went on, when I started reading SF as an adolescent it was because I was miserable and alienated, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

'Yes, Ken,' said Peter Weston, 'but you've improved.'

And, he went on, he too had been miserable and alienated as a teenager, but reading SF had helped him to overcome it, and had made him a better person. Peter Weston is a very good person indeed, so this is quite a testimony. My daughter now reads a lot of SF - she started by reading in quick succession all of Bujold's Vorkosigan books, as it happens - and it seems to be doing her nothing but good. But then, she started when she was twenty or so ...

It has recently been reported that adolescents temporarily lose some of the social abilities they had as children - they find it more difficult to infer emotions from facial expressions, for instance. They become, one might almost say, a little autistic. The difference in brain function is detectable. This casts some light, I think, on why people usually discover SF in their early teens, and usually discard it as adults. It also lays to rest my disquiet about the morality of encouraging young people to read SF. It won't make them go blind, or make them any more gauche than they would be anyway. The real question - and the real marketing problem - may be why people stop reading SF. Is it because they don't find their way from the kind of SF they enjoyed in their teens to the kind of SF that offers more adult satisfactions? I would have been delighted to discover Bujold when I was twenty. Her books would have provided exactly what I was missing, by that time, in SF: subtlety, emotion, colour, warmth, depth.

I remember exactly when I first read a story for myself. I was lying in bed on a Saturday morning leafing through a volume of Newnes Pictorial Knowledge, looking at the pictures, when I came across the story of Robin Hood. I read it, and when I put it down, I knew that a door had opened on a new world. I don't think this memory is falsified in retrospect - the sense of discovery and excitement was vivid, and very like how I had felt when I realised that 'kih-ah-tih spells CAT' could be generalised.

Yes, these memories are vivid. What I'd forgotten, or never thought about until now, was what I went on to read between, say, the ages of six and twelve. I read from all the volumes of Newnes, with especial pleasure in the sections on history, on science, and on 'Fable, Myth and Legend'. I read the Daily Express every day and Reader's Digest every month, and two Reader's Digest compilations: one a collection for children, the other a two-volume set titled Secrets and Stories of the War. National Geographic, lots. Missionary and martyr biographies: David Livingstone, Mary Slessor, Judson of Burma, Gladys Aylward, the Covenanters. Bible stories. Ladybird books of every kind. The Jungle Doctor books. War and POW memoirs: Escape or Die, The Wooden Horse, Eggs on my Plate, The Spycatcher Omnibus. A few classics: Treasure Island, Little Men, Good Wives. The comic-strip versions of Lorna Doone and Ivanhoe. Everything I could find by Enid Blyton. The Biggles books. Willard Price's adventure books. Lots of boys' adventure books, mostly sea stories. Angus MacVicar's books. Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water, about otters. The William books. The Jennings books. Some SF, from the laughable Kemlo books to more serious, if still far-fetched, tales of British boys in space and British special agents. (I remember one, in a series about the same hero, about a space probe that had returned from Venus and crashed in the Australian outback - and the Venusians on board, aquatic and intelligent, had escaped to underground rivers. It wasn't set in the future, or pitched as SF. In the sixties it was taken for granted that this sort of thing could happen any day.) The children's magazines Look and Learn, Eagle, Ranger. These had not only comic strips but serialised novels - there was a superbly illustrated serial of the Borrowers. One of these comics had a series about a resourceful industrial spy, like James Bond without the torture, that I read avidly and I wish I could read again. I read all the girls' books in the house where my mother grew up: girls' school and adventure stories, mostly. There were also books crafted for older children of both sexes: The Lone Pine books, the Young Warrenders books. These kinds of books shaded off into what I think must have been very mild teen romances. I read them without a blush, just as I read the love stories in the stacks of women's magazines that sometimes appeared in the house (given to my mother by friendly neighbours, I think - she wouldn't have bought them for herself).

In short I read every story I could get my hands on, fiction or non-fiction, with no regard to genre or the age or sex of the presumed reader. I've by no means listed everything, or even every kind of thing, I read. In my father's study in the manse in Lewis there were, literally, drifts of books and tracts, which I clambered and slid about on and explored with interest but little understanding. Personal Magnetism. Representative Men. What? Later, when we moved to Greenock, my father used to buy old books by the lot at auctions, retrieve whatever volume of theology he'd been after, and consign the rest to the attic. Into these heaps I burrowed too. The Fall of the Romanoffs. Ireland in Insurrection. Should a Girl Smoke?

Then, at twelve or thirteen or so, I found Alan E. Nourse's Rocket to Limbo in the library, and that was it as far as voluntarily reading any other kind of fiction was concerned, for the next seven or so years. (Apart from thrillers and naval adventures - I read lots of Alasdair Maclean, Hammond Innes, and Helen ... um, the lady who wrote North from Rome.) I went on reading staggering amounts of non-fiction. A typical high school Saturday began with meeting a pal at the Central Library, and taking out a stack of SF. Then we'd take a bus to the swimming pool, and after our swim walk over to the nearby branch library, and take out another stack of SF. After a mid-day dinner at our respective homes we'd meet again, or go our separate ways, down town again to the two second-hand bookshops and the bookstalls at the Saturday market and stock up on second-hand SF paperbacks and war memoirs: The Desert Rats, Popski's Private Army, that sort of thing. And that was the following week's reading sorted.

Nobody thought us odd. Or if they did, we couldn't read their expressions.


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