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October 2020

Built by books

Fairy Garland illustrated by Edmund Dulac

In her 2012 novel How it All Began, Penelope Lively describes her central character, Charlotte Rainsford, in a manner that many book lovers can relate to:

''The Little Girl in a Book'' by Edmund Dulac"Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. [Charlotte's] life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even. She has read to find out how sex works, how babies are born, she has read to discover what it is to be good, or bad; she has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her – then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.

"Specifically, she read bits of the Old Testament when she was ten because of all that stuff about issues of blood, and the things thou shalt not do with thy neighbour’s wife. All of this was confusing rather than enlightening. She got hold of a copy of Fanny Hill when she was eighteen, and was aghast, but also intrigued.

"She read Rosamond Lehmann when she was nineteen, because her heart had been broken. She saw that such suffering is perhaps routine, and, while not consoled, became more stoical.

"She read Saul Bellow, in her thirties, because she wanted to know how it is to be American. After reading, she wondered if she was any wiser, and read Updike, Roth, Mary McCarthy and Alison Lurie in further pursuit of Arthur Rackhamthe matter. She read to find out what it was like to be French or Russian in the nineteenth century, to be a rich New Yorker then, or a Midwestern pioneer. She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience.

"Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without."

''The Good Book'' by Katherine Cameron

“I need fiction, I am an addict," Francis Spufford declared in his poignant memoir, The Child That Books Built. "This is not a figure of speech. I don’t quite read a novel a day, but I certainly read some of a novel every day, and usually some of several. There is always a heap of opened paperbacks face down near the bed, always something current on the kitchen table to reach for over coffee when I wake up. Colonies of prose have formed in the bathroom and in the dimness of the upstairs landing, so that I don’t go without text even in the leftover spaces of the house where I spend least time….I can be happy with an essay or a history if it interlaces like a narrative, if its author uses fact or impression to make a story-like sense, but fiction is kind, fiction is the true stuff....I don’t give it up. It is entwined too deeply within my history, it has been forming the way I see for too long."

"Reading was my escape and my comfort, " Paul Aster explains, "my consolation, my stimulant of choice: reading for the pure pleasure of it, for the beautiful stillness that surrounds you when you hear an author's words reverberating in your head.”

"When I got [my] library card, that was when my life began," says Rita Mae Brown, and I know just what she means.

Reading at the Desk by Carl Larsson

Thus I've been surprised (and a little alarmed) recently by conversations in several of the different spheres I inhabit in which smart, creative people admit that they haven't read many books (in some cases, any books) in a long while. My god, I keep thinking, if artistic and literary friends aren't reading, what hope for the rest of our culture?

Not reading is something I can't really fathom. I'm not boasting here; my reading habit is compulsive, like Spufford's, bordering on obsession, and I'd spend my last dollar on a book, not food. (I know this, because I occasionally did so in the difficult days of my youth.) I cannot imagine how I would survive were I confined to this one single life, this one problematic body, this one limited, fragile consciousness, instead of roaming the wide, wondrous world through the magic of ink and the alphabet. 

''Reading at the Breakfast Table'' by Carl LarssonThere's a famous scene (famous to bookish folks, anyway) in the American television show The Gilmore Girls in which teenaged Rory fills her backpack with books to read before catching the bus to school...explaining to her mother that she needs a pack big enough for all of them because each one -- a novel, a biography, short stories, essays, etc. -- is necessary for different reading moods. Yes! In those halcyon pre-digital days, I loaded my backpack this way too. (And ocassionally still do.) One of my great fears in life is being stuck somewhere with nothing to read. Oh, the horror!

"Writing is a form of therapy," said Graham Greene; "sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation." Greene's words can apply to reading too--

I was about to write: "since I don't know how people can cope without reading." But in fact I do know, for I once spent several months unable to read (or to write) while recovering from meningitis, which affected both my vision and my ability to concentrate on the linear unfolding of a text. Even audiobooks were too hard to follow; I was reduced to watching old episodes of Buffy and The West Wing: both of them so familiar that I could waver in and out of the story. I recall saying over and over to friends: I just don't feel like me. Who am I, if I'm not reading or writing?  It was, I am very glad to say, a temporary experience -- but profoundly unsettling, and just plain profound. It is frightening, yes, but also enlightening when life strips away those things that we most depend on...and then gives them back again.

Reading on the Bench by Carl Larsson

Even stranger than hearing that a literary friend is no longer reading (or reads only online) is meeting an aspiring writer who rarely reads...and this happens much more often than you'd think. The key word is "aspiring," however -- for I can't recall a single one of the many successful writers I've edited over the years who wasn't also a passionate and voracious reader of books, of one sort or another. Such alien creatures must exist, somewhere, since all things are possible under the sun, but I don't know how I'd work with a non-bookish writer. What common language would we speak?

Of course, sometimes when a novelist is at work, she will avoid reading some books or authors in order to avoid certain kinds of influence (a rhythm of prose that interfere with one's own, for example) -- although this varies from writer to writer, and also between one stage of writing and another. For me, when I'm on a first or last draft, I tend to limit the amount of fiction I'm reading (making up for it with nonfiction instead) so that my narrative voice is not overlayed by another fiction writer's style...but for in-between drafts I can, and do, read pretty much anything. I'm not worried, then, about influence; on the contrary, I seek it out: learning this from one writer and that from another; inspired by good books, educated (on what to avoid) by bad ones; filling the well so that the internal "waters of story" will never run dry.

Arthur Rackham

"A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn't diminish us," assures Madeleine L'Engle, "but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can't wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else."

"Read, read, read," advised William Faulkner. "Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window."

 Cincinnati Public Library

"Reading," Joyce Carol Oates, "is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul."

I'm not so sure about the word "sole" (other art forms can be powerfully empathetic too), but otherwise I agree with Oates. For me, reading is the most immediate and effective way to take me take me out of my mortal flesh and into the consciousness of another ... whomever and whatever that Other may prove to be.

"Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth," George Saunders states. "Is life kind or cruel? Yes, Literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says Literature. But unlike other systems of knowing, Literature declines to eradicate one truth in favor of another; rather, it teaches us to abide with the fact that, in their own way, all things are true, and helps us, in the face of this terrifying knowledge, continually push ourselves in the direction of Open the Hell Up."

Holland House Library in London during the Blitz, 1940

Books are my passport to different places, different times, different perceptions of and ways of life. I'd feel so limited and so small without them.

As Betty Smith wrote in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943): "The world was hers for the reading."

Reading in the garden at Weaver's Cottage, 2007; photograph by Alan Lee

Images above: "The Fairy Garland" and "Little Girl in a Book" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), a pen & ink drawing by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), The Good Book" by Katherine Cameron (1874-1965), three paintings by Carl Larsson (1853-1919), "Making Clothes for Her Dolls" by Arthur Rackham, and three photgraphs: boys in front of the Public Library in Cincinatti, Ohio (exact date unknown), the Holland House Library in London during the Blitz (1940), and reading in the garden at Weaver's Cottage (2007, photograph by Alan Lee).


That books that shaped me

The Blackberry Bush

Sleepy Time Tale

“Just as the child is born with a literal hole in its head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in its heart.  Slowly this, too, is filled up.  What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow.  Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."    - Jane Yolen

As a folklorist, fantasist, and passionate advocate for the value of fairy tales, I have written many essays over the years about the fairy tales I loved as a child, and how they've permeated my creative life ever since. I've spent less time thinking about the other tales that colored my childhood, especially those from the earliest years, tales read to me before I could read for myself -- tales that, whatever their objective value as literature, "intruded into the heart" during that formative time.

I wish I could say my young mind was nourished on the classics of children's literature -- the original text of J.M Barrie's sly and sardonic Peter and Wendy, for example -- but like so many children growing up in the 1960s I had a Peter-Pan-simulacrum, not Peter himself: a small picture book with a re-written text that had been greatly slimmed down and simplified, based on Walt Disney's Peter, not Barrie's. Likewise for Felix Salten's Bambi, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and so many other classics in 1960s adapations: they all seemed to bear Disney's stamp, whether or not Disney Studios had ever actually made films out of them.

Little Golden Book editions

I loathe such books now. And yet, I confess, as a child I swallowed them whole. The timeless magic of stories like Peter's runs deep, no matter how badly re-tellings may ravage them. I know from my taste in fairy tales -- where I had the luck to be raised on the old, unwatered-down versions -- that I would have preferred the original texts, even when the language sailed over my head; but I took what was offered, and loved Imitation Peter and Imitation Thumper and Imitation Baloo nonetheless.

Sleepy Time Tale

My memory of my pre-reading years is patchy, but my memory of the books I adored is not, the stories entwined with the sound of my mother's voice as she read them to me at bedtime. She worked during the day, and these were among the rare moments I had her all to myself, and when she seemed contented to be with me, not sadly bewildered by my existence.

What I know today, and did not know then, is that my mother was still just a child herself, having dropped out of high school when I came along (the result of a love affair gone wrong) and living under her own mother's roof. Her room was a frilly teenager's bedroom. I had the little bedroom next door, where through the thin walls I could hear the sound of her crying, night after night. I thought I was the cause of those tears, the unwanted baby who had ruined her life. Much later I learned the rest of the story: there had been a second love affair, and a second baby after me, a son, who had been taken away. Now those years of her bottomless grief made sense. But these clarifying details were hidden from the puzzled child I was, and in the tale that I wove from my ignorance I was the sole source of her misery and shame, and the fact that I could not break through her sorrow seemed to confirm this as truth.

Little 'Fraid of the Dark (from the Book Trails series)

We lived at that time with my grandmother, my step-grandfather, and the three young daughters of that marriage: my aunts, but barely older than me and so they seemed more like sisters. I adored them, followed them everywhere (when they let me), and longed to sleep in their dorm-like room at the top of the house, instead of in my bed with my head under the pillows to block out my mother's crying. Is it any wonder that the first great love of my life was Peter Pan? I insisted on keeping the window cracked open at night, in all kinds of weather, but I never said why. I was waiting for Peter. I wanted to fly to the stars and away. I was certain he would come.

Peter Pan illustration

In addition to those dreadful Disney editions, when storytime came around at night I often requested the "red books": a children's anthology series from the 1920s that lived on my mother's shelves, not mine, for they'd been hers as a child, and she loved them, and I wasn't to touch them. (Or, god forbid, to color in them -- but of course I did and spent a whole week in disgrace.) When my mother died the books came to me, and I still have them today: an eight volume series called Book Trails, published by Shepard & Lawrence in 1928.

Book Trails (Lawrence & Shepard, Inc. 1928)

Two things about these books strike me now. First, they are filled with poems and tales of Victorian and Edwardian vintage, full of children who lived in day and night nurseries, attended by nannies and servants, aired in perambulators and fed strange meals called "tea" (at which, I imagined, only the beverage of that name was served). In this way, I received a literary education more common to children of my mother's, and even my grandmother's, day. I can still quote reams of poetry by Walter de la Mare and Robert Louis Stevenson by heart...along with plenty of sickly-sweet late-Victorian rhymes that no one else has heard of now.

The Little White Bed That Ran Away

Second, I am struck by the fact that the tales I remember as favorites are all, every one of them, variations on a single theme: an unprepossessing child, or puppy, or princess, or fairy is overlooked, unwanted, or has no home...but by story's end they are claimed, loved, and recognized for their inherent worth.

The Story of the Three Little Doggies

The Chicks  That Stayed Up Late (from the Book Trails series)

One story I asked for again and again is a saccharine take on the Ugly Duckling theme, "The Little Fat Fairy" by Florence S. Page. In this tale, there's a little fairy so chubby and clumsy that he can't fly like his fellow fairies, or dance properly, or do much of anything at all. The other fairies tease him and he tries not to mind, but he knows there is something horribly wrong with him and he's deeply ashamed. One day a Lovely Lady comes to the forest looking for a fairy companion. They dance around her, all calling "Choose me! Choose me!" Each one is more beautiful than the next, and the Lovely Lady can't make up her mind...until she spies the fat fairy above her in the trees, hiding his ugliness from her.

"Oh you dear little thing," she cries. "I want you!"

The other fairies are shocked. "Why would you want him? He's so fat he can't dance or anything!"

"That's because he's a baby, not a fairy," says the woman. "He's a beautiful baby boy! And I'm going to be his mother."

The Fat Little Fairy

Little meIt's embarrassing reading the tale today, so cloyingly sweet, so heavy-handedly moral. And yet, I admit, this silly story still makes my heart catch in the same old way. More than fifty years have passed, yet that unwanted child is at my core. To be seen, to be valued, to be claimed without hesitation...that's a powerful magic indeed, and it doesn't matter that the tale is so badly written. The child I was didn't know that, or care. I read it now and I'm transported back: to that room, to that bed, to the window cracked open, to the nightly sobs of my teenage mother. And the waiting, the waiting, for someone to claim me. Peter Pan. Lovely Lady. Anyone. Months passed, years passed, and no one did, so I was parented by books instead.

It's unsettling to write these words. Not because of painful emotions evoked -- I've made my peace with my past after all these years -- but because I'm a writer myself now, and these stories are challenging my deepest convictions. I believe it's important to write well for children; to create fantasy that is complex and true, not didactic tales or frivilous fancies steeped only in bathos and wish-fulfillment. Yet the sugary stories of the "red books" were true for me at that time, and I did not distinguish good writing from poor. I took what I needed, and if the tales were simplistic in the telling, they became something more in the hearing.

Table of Contents illustration from the Book Trails series"I  don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children," says my wise friend Neil Gaiman. "Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy. It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it."

Little Milk, Little Cereal, and Grey Kitten Moorka

Another "bad book" I loved without reservation was  The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian Munn, published in 1953 and dismissed by reviewers as "sticky sentiment" even then. I can't say that assessment is wrong, but as a small child in the '60s this book was my sacred text: profound, transcendent, and necessary. The story is simple. Mrs. Pig is the only animal on Bayberry Lane who never receives any mail. Each day she waits by her mailbox, hopeful, and each day the kind-hearted The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian MunnLittle Mailman, a chipmunk, witnesses her disappointment. Distressed by Mrs. Pig's loneliness, the Little Mailman comes up with a plan. The next day, everyone on the lane gets an invitation to a party...except poor Mrs. Pig, who is now sadder than ever. It turns out, of course, that the big event is a surprise party thrown by the mailman for her, after which she has so many friends that her mailbox never stands empty again.

Polly Pig, as depicted by illustrator Elizabeth Webbe, is quietly sad and quietly sweet -- descriptions I could also apply to my mother. No Mr. Pig is ever mentioned (another similarity), and she seems undeserving of the loneliness that suffuses her life until the Little Mailman comes along. I might easily have been a more selfish child, rejecting my mother and her suffocating sorrow, adding to the burden of grief she carried; but instead, through the Little Mailman, I learned about kindness, empathy, emotional generosity. If only I could be half so clever as he, I too might devise an ingenious plan to bring happiness back into my mother's life. I tried, and I tried, and I never succeeded. Her problems were larger than Mrs. Pig's. But the compassion that I learned from that "sticky sentimental" story I carry with me to this day.

The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane

None of these are tales I would choose to grow up with. Nor would I would give them to a child now when there are so many better stories to offer, both classic and contemporary. Yet I craved these books, asked for them over and over, and found their sugary sweetness nourishing to my soul. As a writer, I cannot approve of them. They are not, by any measure of the writing craft, good: they are simplistic, soppy, and (in the case of the Disneyfied picture books) inauthentic. They are everything that as an artist I deplore.

Yet they made me the person and writer I am. And I love them still.

7b88526df9849ffd287ab1e7619ac18f

A Story Book (from Book Trails)

Words: The quote by Jane Yolen is from her excellent book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 1981). The quote by Neil Gaiman is from "Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreams (The Guardian, October 15, 2013).

Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.) The illustrations from the Book Trails series (Lawrence & Shepard, 1928) are, alas, not credited by artist.


The books that shape us: Ursula K. Le Guin

Young Arthur by Alan Lee

In her essay "The Beast in the Book," Ursula K. Le Guin discusses her childhood love of T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone -- and, in particular, for the vivid collection of animals running through its pages:

"T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, though about King Arthur, is crowded with animals. In the first chapter King-Arthur-to-be, currently known as the Wart, takes out a goshawk, loses him, and meets Merlyn's owl Archimedes.

Merlin and Archimedes by Dennis Nolan"Oh what a lovely owl!" cried the Wart.

But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so there was only the smallest slit to peep through...and said in a doubtful voice:

"There is no owl."

Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.

"It's only a boy," said Merlyn.

"There is no boy," said the owl hopefully, without turning round.

"Merlyn undertakes Arthur's education, which consists mostly of being turned into animals. Here we meet the great mythic theme of Transformation, which is a central act of shamanism, though Merlyn doesn't make any fuss about it. The boy becomes a fish, a hawk, a snake, an owl, and a badger. He participates, at thirty years per minute, in the sentience of trees, and then, at two million years per second, in the sentience of stones. All these scenes of participation in nonhuman being are funny, vivid, startling, and wise.

Merlyn by NC Wyeth

"When a witch puts Wart into a cage to fatten him up, the goat in the next cage plays Animal Helper and rescues them all. All animals rightly trust Wart, which is proof of his true kingship. That he goes along on a boar hunt does not vitiate this trust: to White, true hunting is a genuine relationship between hunter and hunted, with implacable moral rules and a high degree of honor and respect for the prey. The emotions aroused by hunting are powerful, and white draws them all together in the scene of the death of the hound Beaumont, killed by the boar, a passage I have never yet read without crying,

"At the climax of the book, Wart can't draw the sword of kingship from the stone anvil by himself. He calls to Merlyn for help, and the animals come.

Young Arthur by John Lawrence & Dennis Nolan

"There were otters and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares, and serpents and falcons and fishes and goats and dogs and dainty uincorns and newts and solitary wasps and goat-moth caterpillars and corkindrills and volcanoes and mighty trees and patient stones...all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his power grow.

"Each creature calls its special wisdom to the boy who has been one of them, one with them. The pike says, 'Put your back into it,' a stone says, 'Cohere,' a snake says 'Fold your powers together with the spirit of your mind' -- and:

The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.

Merlin by Frank Godwin & The Sword in the Stone by Walter Crane

"T.H. White was a man to whom animals were very important, perhaps because his human relationships were so tormented. But his sense of connection with nonhuman lives goes far beyond mere compensation; it is a passionate vision of a moral universe, a world of terrible pain and cruelty from which trust and love spring like autumn crocus, vulnerable and unconquerable.

Merlin & Arthur by Scott Gustafson

"The Sword and the Stone, which I first read at thirteen or so,  influenced my mind and heart in ways which must be quite clear in the course of this talk, convincing me that trust cannot be limited to humankind, that love can not be specified. It's all or nothing at all. If, called to reign, you distrust and scorn your subjects, your only kingdom will be that of greed and hate. Love and trust and be a king, and your kingdom will be of the whole world. And to your coronation, among all the wondrous gifts, an 'anonymous hedgehog will send four or five dirty leaves with some fleas on them.' "

Owl and Hare by Jackie Morris

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine Hyde

Words: The passage above is from "The Beast in the Book," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Books & Life  by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the author's estate.

Pictures: The art above is by Alan Lee, Dennis Nolan, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), John Lawrence, Frank Godwin (1889-1959), Walter Crane (1845-1915), Scott Gustafson, Jackie Morris and Catherine Hyde. The images are identified in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.

Further Reading:  T.H. White by Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Goshawk by T.H. White, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. A previous post on White: "T.H. White: a rescued mind."


The books that shape us: E.L. Doctorow

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

In his essay "Childhood of a Writer," E.L. Doctorow describes how his passion for fiction ignited when he was eight years old:

"Back home [from an appendix operation], and more or less on my feet again, I took out of the library the two great dog novels of Jack London, published together for my convenience in one sturdy binding, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, the one about a civilized dog who is kidnapped and enslaved as a sled-husky in the Yukon and, under the brutal pressures of human masters, finds freedom and self-realization in reverting to the primeval wolf ways of his remote ancestry, the other about a savage wolf who, under the ministrations of a decent human being, becomes a civilized human-friendly dog. On such tales as these he became the most popular writer in America, and he is still widely read around the world, though he sits at literature's table below the salt while the more sophisticated voices of modernist and postmodernist irony conduct the conversation.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

"The tests and trials to which Buck, the dog in The Call of the Wild, is subjected, and the way he meets them and learns and grows in moral stature, make Buck a round character, while the human beings in the book are, in their constant one-note villainy, flat. This is irony too, a fine irony. Furthermore, this little speed-readers' novel, written at the level of a good pulp serial, is in fact a parody of the novel of sentimental education, not only because the hero is a dog, but because his education decivilizes him, turns him back into the wild creature of his primordial ancestry. I appreciate that now, but then I only knew that Jack London was different from the picture-book writer Aesop, he was not tiresome as Aesop was, he took animals seriously, granting them complex character as the veterinarily incorrect Aesop never did. The moral of the Jack London book was not something you knew already without having to be instructed. But it was there and it was resonant with my own life.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis"Every day, it seemed, old men knocked on the front door to ask my mother for money to help bring Jews out of Europe. Playing with my friends in the park, I had to watch out for older boys who swept up from the East Bronx to take at knifepoint our spaldines and whatever pocket change we were carrying. My father, the proud owner of a music shop in the old Hippodrome theater at Sixth Avenue and Forty-Third Street, a man who knew the classical repertoire inside and out and stocked music that nobody else had, a man whom the great artists of the day consulted for their record purchases, lost his store in the 'little' Depression of 1940. My ancient grandmother, growing more and more insane each day, now ran away to wander the streets until the police found her and brought her home. We were broke, what the newspapers called war clouds were growing darker and more ominous, my brother was of freshly minted draft age, and The Call of the Wild, this mordant parable of the thinness of civilization, the savagery bursting through as the season changed in the Bronx and a winter of deep heavy snows, like the snows of the Yukon, fell upon us, the whole city muffled and still, made me long to be in the wild, loping at the head of my pack, ready to leap up and plunge my incisors into the throats of all who would harm me or my family.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

"At one point I must have realized the primordial power belonged not to the dog, or not in fact to the dog, because around this time -- I was perhaps nine years old -- I decided I was a writer. It was a clear conviction, not even requiring a sacred vow; I assumed the identity with grace, as one slips on a jacket or sweater that fits perfectly.

"It was such a natural assumption of my mind that for several years I felt no obligation to actually write anything. My convalesence had left me flabby, out of shape, with less energy for running around. I was more disposed than ever to read or listen to radio stories, and I was now reading not only to find out what happened next but with that additional line of inquiry of the child writer who is yet to write: How is this done? It is a kind of imprinting.

"We live in the book as we read it, yes, but we run with the author as well -- this wild begetter of voices, this voice of voices, this noble creature of the wild whose linguistic lope over any sort of terrain brings it into being."

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

Photographs by Paul Croes

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

The wonderful pictures today are by Belgian animal photographer Paul Croes. Please visit his website to see more.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

The passage quoted above is from "Childhood of a Writer," published in Reporting the Universe by E.L. Doctorow (Harvard University Press, 2004). All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the author and photographer.


The books that shape us: Ronald Harwood & Doris Lessing

Children's Classics by Holly Farrell

Here's another passage from The Pleasure of Reading on the importance "place" in a child's imagination -- in this case, not the place where the child actually lives, but the worlds conjured by a writer's words:

The Famous Five Have Plenty of Fun"Oh, the excitement of the latest Famous Five adventure," playwright Ronald Harwood reminisces, "with Biggles, Just William, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Long John Silver following close behind. I have not, except for Treasure Island, re-read them since childhood or adolescence and I've made it a condition not to re-read them now in case I am embarrassed by memory. I want to prevent the pompous adult, sensitive to what others may think, from inhibiting the impressionable child. I was, by the way, a late developer and only began reading intelligently when I was twenty.

"I should explain I was born and educated in Cape Town but my mother, born in London, led me to believe from an early age that England was the Promised Land and London Jerusalem so I was a good deal drawn to books which fed my hunger for Englishness, defined by me then, and now, as an ideal of gentleness, culture, countryside and justice.

"Enid Blyton, more than any other writer I remember, fulfilled much of that definition, those longings for England, but only in her Famous Five stories. (I could not abide Noddy or any of the others.) The Famous Five, as I remember, lived somewhere in the south of England -- Kent, I think -- and were amateur detectives who, in their summer holidays, stumbled on crimes and solved them just as it was time to go back to school. Gentle justice triumphed.

Eileen Soper

"But it was her ability to share her love of the English landscape which was, to me, her most endearing quality," Harwood continues. "Enid Blyton described the rural scene so vividly that I carry to this day what I believe to be her images of tree-tunnels and green hillsides and well-kept careless gardens. I am told now it was a sugary, middle-class idyll she created (a criticism as meaningless to me now as it would have been then), romantic, idealized, nostalgic.

"The fascinating aspect of her power, however, is that when, many years later, I went to live in a Hampshire village and walked the footpaths and climbed the hangers, my memory was jolted by her descriptions of the England in which the capers of the Famous Five took place and seemed to me accurate. I cannot say she influenced my own writing but as a reader I owe her an enormous debt; and I remember in the 1970s, when censorship was virulent in England, how shocked I was to read of librarians removing Enid Blyton from their shelves for being too middle-class or too twee or too something. They could not have known that to one immigrant, at least, she described a magical world."

Eileen Soper

Famous Five cover art by Eileen Soper

Doris Lessing lived in Iran until she was five, then spent the rest of her childhood on a farm in South Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

"I began reading at seven, off a cigarette pack," she recalls, before progressing to the books on her English-born parents' shelves. "The books I responded to then are not those I would Anne of Green Gableschose as best now. You have to read a book at the right time for you, and I'm sure this cannot be insisted on too often, for it is the key to the enjoyment of literature.

"I read children's books, some unknown to today's children. The [North] Americans: L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books, Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did series, The Girl of Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter and its sequels. Louisa Alcott. Hawthorne. Henty. The English classics were Lewis Carroll, who I like better now than I did then, and Milne's Winnie the Pooh, which I adored then and feel uneasy about now. The hero is a stupid greedy little bear, and the clever animals are ridiculous: good old England, I sometimes think, at it again. But there was Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows cover atyThe Wind in the Willows,
and a wonderful children's newspaper, and a magazine called The Merry-Go-Round that printed Walter de la Mare, Eleanor Farjeon, Lawrence Binyon, and other fine writers. Walter de la Mare's The Three Royal Monkeys entranced me then, and still kept some of its magic about it when I recently re-read it.

"I was lucky that my parents read to my brother and me. I believe that nothing has the impact of a story read or told. I remember the atmosphere of those evenings, and all the stories, some of them long-running domestic epics made up by my mother, about the adventures of mice, or our cats and dogs, or the little monkeys that lived around us in the bush and sometimes leaped about in the rafters under the thatch, or the interaction between our domestic animals and the wild ones all around us....Parents who read to their children or who make up stories are giving them the finest gift in the world. Do we too often forget that tale-telling is thousands of years old, whereas we have been reading for a trifling number of centuries?"

Early editions of three children's classics

Vintage Children's Books, a still life painting by Holly Farrell

Pictures: The pictures at the top and bottom of this post are by Holly Farrell, a Canadian artist whose paintings of old books and other objects are just wonderful. The classic Famous Five illustrations are by Eileen Soper (1905-1990). The first edition of Anne of Green Gables was illustrated by M. A. & W. A. J. Claus (1914). The edition of Wind in the Willows illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard came out in 1931, though the story itself, unillustrated, first appeared in 1908. The cover design for The Girl of the Limberlost is by Wladyslaw T. Benda, the cover illustration for What Katy Did is uncredited, and the cover illustration for Little Women is by C.M. Burd. The novels were originally published in 1909, 1872, and 1868/69 respectively. Words: The passages by Ronald Harwood and Doris Lessing above are from Reading for Pleasure, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors, artists, or their estates.