I HAVE LOVED READING ever since I was first able to master this skill. During my childhood, we used to drive to Hampstead (in north London) every Saturday morning. We always used to visit the now long-since closed High Hill Bookshop on Rosslyn Hill. Our parents allowed my sister and me to choose one book each Saturday and bought them for us. Week by week, my collection of the adventures of Tintin by Hergé grew until I had all the episodes that had been published in English. There was little, if any, censorship of our choices. However, I had the distinct impression that my parents preferred that we avoided books by Enid Blyton. So, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading any of her extensive literary oeuvre.
I discovered and fell in love with “Mad” magazine, which was not available at High Hill Bookshop. I bought copies of it at a local shop, using my pocket money. My parents appeared not to approve of the magazine, but my father (not my mother) was always happy to read my copies of it when I had finished with them. “Readers Digest”, like Enid Blyton, did not fulfil my parents’ criteria of ‘good’ literature. I enjoyed leafing through this periodical and particularly remember reading and re-reading an article written by someone who was conscious during his brain surgery. I did not need to buy “Readers Digest” at full price as it was possible to buy boxes crammed full of old issues, sold as a job lots for a few pence at local jumble sales.
There was only one book that was deemed strictly forbidden during my childhood. It was “Struwwelpeter” by Heinrich Hoffman, published in 1845 and reprinted many times since then. It is a series of moral tales about children who misbehave. For example, when Konrad disobeys his mother’s instruction not to suck his thumbs, an itinerant tailor appears and cuts off Konrad’s thumbs. Each tale is illustrated by frighteningly graphic illustrations. On afternoon, my sister and I, who had discovered this book by accident, were interrupted by my mother. She seized the book and tore it into pieces, which she stuffed into the wastepaper basket. Apart from this violent reaction to a book and the hints that Enid Blyton was to be avoided, I could read pretty much anything I wanted.
At school, books were recommended as being worth reading, especially those by famous 19th century British authors. I never read any of these. For some unknown reason, probably contrariness, if someone told me that I ought to read a particular book, this put me off even opening it. I wanted to read what I had chosen myself, not what had been chosen for me because it might be “good for you”. Similarly, if someone tells me that this or that food item is “good for you”, I do not rate that as a positive recommendation.
At Christmas 1963, we were in New York City. A friend of my parents, ‘E’, met us in the book department of FAO Schwarz, a toy store on Fifth Avenue. She wanted her son and me each to choose a book as a gift from her. E showed me a thick encyclopaedia of anthropology, which she had decided either that I would enjoy it or that it would be good for me. Well, I took one look at it and decided to check out the other books on display. I homed in on an illustrated history of the FBI. It was filled with intriguing black and white photographs, some quite gory. I took the book to E, who looked at it disapprovingly and then asked whether I was sure that I did not want the fine book on anthropology. I was sure, and a few minutes later I became the proud owner of the book about the FBI. E’s son, who was clearly more easily influenced by his mother than me, chose to buy the anthropology book. Years later, he qualified as a psychiatrist and I as a dentist. I am not sure what can be concluded from that.
My parents’ suggestion that there was something not quite right about Enid Blyton left a lingering doubt about the author in my mind. In the mid-1990s, I began visiting India regularly. There, I discovered wonderful bookshops, some of which were (and still are) much better stocked than those in London. What surprised me in those shops were the huge numbers of books by Enid Blyton on sale. Clearly, Enid was well-read and her books much purchased in India. So, when I heard that there was going to be a lecture about Enid Blyton and India at the Nehru Centre in London, I felt that this was not to be missed. The speaker was none other than Enid Blyton’s very articulate daughter. She told us that British educators often frowned upon her mother’s works (just as my parents had done). The reason they were not keen was that it was considered that Enid’s vocabulary was not rich or varied enough. She revealed that when the texts of her mother’s books were analysed numerically, the vocabulary used I them was, in fact, no less rich or varied than that employed by other authors writing for the same age groups.
In recent years, I have changed. Maybe, I have become a little less stubborn about book recommendations. If someone suggests a book to me, I no longer instantly reject the idea of reading it. There is a good chance that I will look it up to see what others think of it. If it is about a subject that might chime with any of my interests, there is a good chance that I will buy a copy and add it to the ever increasing pile of unopened books waiting to be read by me. However, you will still not be able to find Dickens, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, or titles that would “be good for me” on their spines.