Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Boston Yankee, in no particular court

It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger whom I am going to talk about.
He attracted me by three things: his candid simplicity, his marvelous familiarity with ancient armor, and the restfulness of his company—for he did all the talking.

We fell together, as modest people will, in the tail of the herd that was being shown through, and he at once began to say things which interested me...

The first Science Fiction (of a sort) that I ever read... in fact the first real novel I ever read of any kind, was I believe "A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthurs Court", by Mark Twain.

I was five years old, and it was a part of a series of condensed classics for older children, that included Stevenson (Treasure Island, Kidnapped), DeFoe (Robinson Crusoe), Doyle (Hound of the Baskervilles), Twain (Tom Sawyer, Yankee), H.G. Wells (the time machine), Jonathon Swift (Gullivers Travels), and Jules Verne (20,000 leagues under the sea, Around the World in 80 days); and some others that I can only vaguely recall (I think a version of Robin hood, and a version of the Arthurian legend... perhaps the leatherstocking tales as well?).

The set was a present from my grandfather, who always revered reading, and who loved and raised me like a father (my own father was in prison most of my life; and my mother, though she tried her best, was not much of a mother).

I had, with the assistance of my family, mostly taught myself how to read before starting kindergarten (which I started at 4, because of my birthday, but I'd had two years of pre-school), and for months I was busily reading everything I can get my hands on around the house (which was a lot). Though the books were intended for 10-12 year olds, my grandfather always had a good deal of pride and confidence in me; he was sure I would understand and appreciate them.

What I quite vividly recall the cover illustrations; which were exciting... even lurid. The books, which were printed on horrible acid laden paper that would eat itself to death within a few years, and which were smaller than regular paperbacks; also had really quite bad inset line drawing illustrations.

UPDATE: Amazingly enough, Mel had the exact same series of books; and found them online for me. Funny how those coincidences happen eh? There were about 40 of them, and I had I think 24 of them. They came in these long carboard display boxes that had artwork from the covers wrapped around them, with the spines all lined up outward like a little bookshelf; and I think there were 8 of the books per box, and I had three of the boxes.

I remember not really knowing where to start, so I picked "Yankee" because it had a Knight in armor with a lance on it, and I thought it was an interesting cover...

And so it began.

I absolutely devoured Yankee, and set upon the rest, finishing up with Vernes "20,000 leagues under the sea" a few weeks later.

Within a few months I was reading all of the real adult novels that my house was packed to the rafters with. At that time, we had been living with my grandparents for the two and a half years since my mothers divorce and the birth of my brother. My mother was only 25 herself, and my youngest aunts and uncles were only 17, 18, and 19; and still living at home.

At any rate, they were all big readers, as were my grandfather and grandmother, and the selection was pretty large, but... mature, shall we say. We had literally thousnads of books, from classic to moder popular fiction; Harold Coyle, Robert Ludlum, ELmore Leonard and the like; not exactly "childrens" books.

I remember I read Steven Kings "The Stand" for the first time, when I was seven; and I had no problem understanding it at all. I re-read it some years later of course (as I did with almost all the books I read in that time period; most of them several times), but surprisingly enough, my understanding of the book hadn't really changed at all, excepting that I got more of the references to pop culture etc...

Then again I would also read childrens and young adult books as well, mostly acquired from the school library, or local public library; and especially their remainder sales.

I wish I could remember the title of this one book I read several times as a kid... It was in theory a "girls book", but I loved it; and I want it for my girls. It featured a young girl named Annabelle who was secretly a fairy princess, and whose parents had gone away, and sent her to live with an old aunt in a big house. When she was there, some magic toys came to life, and told Annabelle about her being a fairy, and that she could tell by the fact that she could kiss her own elbows, and that only fairys could do that.

(UPDATE: Sharp eyes reader Lois remembered the title for me: "No Flying in the House" by Betty Brock. I would highly recommend it to those of you with children of the appropriate age).

It's amazing the magic we love as children; and how little it's tolerated by the adult world isn't it?

I also loved the now horribly dated Hardy Boys books (I got a full set of the hardcovers from the 50s, with Chet and his Jalopy; and then a later slickly covered 80s set of thin paperbacks... guess which ones I preferred), and the even more dated Matt Christopher jeuveniles... I remember one about slot car racing, and another about building your own motorcycles, and another about dirt track racing... See, I was already a budding engineer.

I remember this one jeuvenile fiction "literature" type book that I must've read 50 times... "My Side of the Mountain" by Jean George. It was a Newbury award winner, so you may have had it shoved down your throat in school (god I hate how schools approach what should be recreational reading), but I read it on my own, and I loved it. I was always interested in camping, outdoors, and survival; and the book is the story of a boy who reads a bunch of wilderness survival books, gets tired of his life, and goes out to live on the side of a mountain in a hollowed out tree for a year.

I used to get my boyscout catalogs and the survival and military surplus catalogs, and make lists of what I would need to be able to do that on my own.

Then of course there was Heinlein, and "Victor Appleton" with Tom Swift, and E.E. Doc Smiths Lensman, and innumerable other classics of Science Fictions golden age... In fact I don't think I read any real "modern" science fiction until I was a teenager, except those that were connected to Star Wars and Star Trek, and similar.

I read a bit of everything; but mostly I read what I mostly read now: Historical fiction, adventure, war, fantasy, and sci-fi. The only major difference now is that I also read a lot of non-fiction history, politics, and humor.

By the time I was ten I owned over 1400 books of my own; in fact they were the only possessions I bothered keeping much as we moved around a lot. In the 20 someodd years since then, I've read I don't know how many thousand books. Sometimes I'll read three or four a day, sometimes I wont read any for a week. I've always got at least one book going, its just that between work, reading online (I read over a hundred web pages a day, sometimes a couple hundred), and family I may go a week between sessions of reading in ink and paper books.

...That was never the case until I found myself with a wife and kids, funny enough. I literally never went a single conscious and well day when I didn't read at least part of a book; excepting some of my time in the Air Force. Life is what it is though.

At any rate, it all started with those fitting words: and he at once began to say things which interested me...

And here I am, three decades... almost four decades (damn, it's 2/3 the way through 2007 already) later; the most profound influences of my life aside from my friends and my family, having been the books I've chosen to help fill it.

I haven't re-read Yankee since sometime around high school. It's now available online for free, in many forms (as are in fact almost all the books I've mentioned here). I think I'm going to go read it on GoogleBooks right now . I think I have a print copy somewhere (I have a collected works of Twain somewhere), I just can't find it; but I won't enjoy reading it any less off the computer screen.

So, what was your first book? Or your first "real" novel, or the first book that really effected you? Why don't you go find it, and read it again? I'll be here when you get back.