Monday, March 06, 2006

A Brief History of Book-Reading

It all began with Enid Blyton - I do remember that much. The 'library' at Hari Sri School (today the much, much bigger and popular Hari Sri Vidya Nidhi School) could hardly be called one then; it was more like a couple of bookshelves, adorned with what seemed to be a dusty vestige of somebody's book-collection. Since we were all too young to choose a book for ourselves, each one of us was given a book to read - a battered Enid Blyton, in most cases. If my memory serves me right, I got a Noddy. Thus began my association with books.

Getting back from school, rushing out for a game of cricket and completing homework seemed almost monotonic when compared to the sheer pleasure of curling up with a book in one's hand. Soon enough, a book was part of my entourage wherever I went. I finished off the usual suspects - the 'Five-Findouters' and 'Famous Five' series by Enid Blyton (its incredible what a vital part of my childhood reading she was) - from my school library pretty quick, and was soon searching for more books to devour. The 'Secret Seven' series did not appeal to me much, perhaps because I started on these after the 'Famous Five' series. Rummaging through the dusty paperbacks, I discovered a 'William' book hidden at the back of a bookshelf. Unfortunately, the school library seemed not to have any more William books. Fortunately, we had a public library membership, mostly unused until now except for a couple of magazines that a tall man on a cycle delivered every now and then, which I now proceeded to make full use of.

The public library,
at least to me, was like a labyrinth of hidden treasures lying in wait for me to discover. There was no catalog in place, the odds of finding two books by the same author on the same shelf was pretty much the same as lightning striking the same place twice. The memories of rummaging through the dusty books of that public library and occaisonally coming up with such unread classics as an abridged version of Peter Beagle's remarkable 'The Last Unicorn', are remarkably vivid even today. And of course, if one searched long enough (as I did), one could discover the entire William series too (now, reading them in order is too much to ask for).

In between the weekly trips to the public library, I still continued to raid the school library and discovered other Enid Blyton classics, including the 'Wishing Chair' series (which was meant for slightly younger kids, but I enjoyed it anyway!), the 'Faraway Tree' series and inevitably, the fantastic School books, including the 'St. Clares' series and the 'Malory Towers' series. There were also occaisonal stand-alone books (about farms, circuses and the like) that were enjoyable too.

After exhausting Enid Blyton and William, I moved on to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. Now, I know these books had their fans, but to me they were boring, inane and predictable (especially the latter). The case-file versions of these books were slight improvements, but not enough to get me hooked. It was at this stage that I changed schools, and moved to a larger school (which inevitably had a larger library). Here, I discovered Asterix. My voracious reading habits had endowed upon me a vocabulary that was pretty decent for my years (especially for an average Mallu kid born and brought up in Kerala), and I had no trouble understanding most of the puns in the Asterix books. It was my first introduction to humour and sarcasm, and I liked it.

My cousins, visiting from Bombay, got me two new books - the first two books of the 'Three Investigators' series. Oh-boy, was I hooked !! The 'Three Investigator' series stood apart from the rest of the mysteries I were used to, in that they were written in a much more grown-up style, and were considerably 'darker' in intonation as well as content. Moreover, the mysteries were much more intriguing, and lead to me being introduced to the granddaddy of all mystery books - the Sherlock Holmes stories. Asterix, Jupiter Jones and Sherlock Holmes (along with Tintin, whom I met shortly) kept me engrossed almost for 2 years.

I read my first 'grown-up' book when I was in the 7th standard - it was Robin Cook's medical thriller named 'Godplayer'. The next 'grown-up' book I read is one that I have re-read umpteen times since - 'Kane and Abel' by Jeffrey Archer. Thereupon, its been quite a 'read-athon' - Sidney Sheldon, Arthur Hailey, Stephen King, J.H.Chase, A.Maclean, Dennis Lehane, Jeffrey Deaver, J.K.Rowling... I could go on forever !

Over the last 2 years, ever since I have been working at New York, I find myself experimenting a bit more. I never used to be much of a fantasy buff, but now with Tolkien's LOTR, and the 'Inheritance' series by the amazing Christopher Paolini (who wrote his first book when he was just 16, an age when most of us were secretly lusting after the neighborhood girls), I am on the verge of being a fan for life. I have also re-read many of the classics, and many of the books that I so enjoyed in my own childhood. Today, I experiment a lot more with new authors than I used to. I have also developed an interest in Bibilical stories, and this was before the advent of the 'Da Vinci Code' mania. Wonder why we do not have similar exciting/controversial stuff in our own mythologies (or am I just plain ignorant of such regional books).

This time, I fully intend to read a lot of Malayalam books - I am so ashamed that I have hardly read any, especially when I readily boast of my reading habits to all and sundry. I hope I can rectify this during this vacation (which starts next week - Hurrah !!!).

P.S: Amazingly enough, Enid Blyton, the author of so many of my favourite books as a child does not figure in the scheme of things here at all. Accusations of racism (sample: the semi-villainous golliwog character appearing in many of her toy-stories) and sexism have resulted in her books being banned here. Well, I pity the kids; they just do not know what they are missing (as somebody who has read both, let me tell you: J.K Rowling just about comes close to Enid Blyton at best, and that too, by a whisker).


Shruthi said...

Cool post! The evolution of my reading habits is almost exactly like yours! Enid Blyton ruled my childhood too! :) But for some strange reason, I never liked Three Investigators.
But one difference is - before I started reading thrillers, I had devoured the classics!
Nice, I should write on a similar theme sometime...

Ranjit Nair said...

Yeah, Enid Blyton was awesome - spoiled hostel life for me forever with all the expectations !! But its strange you never liked the 3 Investigators - they were rather cool.

I'd read abridged versions of most of the classics, but not the 'real' ones. Some of these American neo-classics are good, 'coz they deal with the Civil War and stuff, which I find interesting. That's what I sorta meant when I said we have relatively fewer neo-classics of that kind in Indian literature, unless its regional.

Fly Goddess said...

I noticed that you are from Hari Sri, so thought I'd write something.
I was in love withthe library when I was in Hari Sri, probably 4-5 years your junior(judging by your age). Used to spend even 15 minute breaks there. I finished most books in a day, read between classes, even during them.
My tastes were very different from yours though, I never liked Enid Blyton much.
But my first grown up book was a Robin Cook too, "Fatal Cure". I've read most of his books, and thought "GodPlayer" was one of the better ones. Don't care much for Archer, though.

Nice reading the blog