When I was 13 my mother brought home a reading list from my school’s parents’ evening. It was on the kitchen table the following morning. I guess that they gave the list to parents so that they could see what was expected of their children, and to make sure that the list made it home. That single sheet of A4 paper might still be somewhere in the house, in a box of old school books. If I knew for sure that it was here I’d give up an hour or two looking for it, but I can still remember at least half of the books that were on it and that’ll do me for now.
That reading list formed the basis of most of the books that I read in the following six months, especially during my summer holidays. I found the list daunting at the time. For a start, there wasn’t a single book on it that I had read, reflecting the fact that I had never read a single book aimed at grown-ups or even teenagers, apart from a few by John Wyndham, and not one of his books was listed.
I started with “Watership Down”. (Do children still read that these days?) Then it was Spike Milligan’s “Adolf Hitler: My part in his downfall” and “The Day of the Jackal”. The latter was the first book I had ever read that featured someone having sex.
I have been reflecting on all of this because I have just re-read “Rogue Male” by Geoffrey Household, one of the many books on the list that I read that summer. It came to mind when I wrote “1000 Memories” and I’ve copied that story to my Memories Menu, here.
That reading list is imprinted on my memory for many reasons. It was the first that I remember studying. There might have been earlier lists, aimed at 11- or 12-year olds, but I don’t remember paying attention to them. I can recall the books that I read that summer more readily than in any summer since then. Most of the author names were new to me. I can remember, just as strongly, which books I didn’t read (and still haven’t). They’re all listed at the end of this piece.
That summer my shopping habits changed. Instead of spending my time browsing racks of LPs in record shops I browsed bookshelves, first in our (long-gone) local bookshop Turnham Pages and then further afield, in places like Foyle’s in Charing Cross Road. The only book that we already had in the house was “Great Expectations”, which my brother had just studied for O Level. We had very few grown-up books in the house: my father read plenty but they were always library books. From the age of 13 I got into the habit of buying everything that I wanted to read and have never given away, or thrown away, a single book. Some have been lent to others (and not returned) and some have been stolen, but that’s another story.
Here are the 20 titles that come to mind from that first year of reading grown-up books.
The books I remember reading that year
“The Pearl” (John Steinbeck)
“Of Mice and Men” (John Steinbeck)
“Great Expectations” (Charles Dickens)
“Portrait of the artist as a young dog” (Dylan Thomas)
“Papillon” (Henri Charriere)
“Rogue Male” (Geoffrey Household)
“The old man and the sea” (Ernest Hemingway)
“Run silent, run deep” (EL Beach)
“Out of the silent planet” (CS Lewis)
“The Day of the Jackal” (Frederick Forsyth)
“Watership Down” (Richard Adams)
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
“Adolf Hitler: My part in his downfall” (Spike Milligan)
“Scoop” (Evelyn Waugh)
“The Diamond as big as the Ritz” (F Scott Fitzgerald)
“Fahrenheit 451” (Ray Bradbury)
“The Card” (Arnold Bennett)
The books I didn’t read that year (and still haven’t)
“The Gulag Archipelago” (Alexander Solzhenitsyn) [I think that this might have been some kind of teacher’s joke: could a 13- or 14-year old boy really be expected to read this?]
“A kid for two farthings” (Wolf Mankovitz)
“Aku-Aku” (Thor Heyerdal)
“The beast in me and other animals” (James Thurber)
“Ring of bright water” (Gavin Maxwell)