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“John Paul Sarter, the famous French extensionist …”

When I was growing up, we had a medium-sized bookcase filled with children’s books but only a handful of novels aimed at adults. Most of the books we had were published by Ladybird or Puffin. I even managed to read a few of them: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and the other six books now described as “The Chronicles” of Narnia”, “Emil and the Detectives” by Erich Kästner, “Castaway Christmas” by Margaret J Baker. But most of them I never even opened: whole sets of Paddington and Dr Doolittle books, the always-daunting “Swallows and Amazons” (so many pages), Ian Serraillier’s “The Silver Sword”.

I wrote about the last of these back in 2016. My daughter was reading it. She was 10 at the time. I finally read it too, after many decades of ignoring it. But in those intervening decades I had acquired thousands of books not aimed at children, and have read most of them. The ones that I have not read are generally kept separate from those that I have. I do not throw away books, even the ones that I am unlikely to work my way through.

My daughter, now aged 15, has progressed from “The Silver Sword”, through plenty of Young Adult Fiction, and is now reading books that you will find on the shelves marked Fiction, Literature or Modern Classics at your local bookshop. Yesterday she finished “The Outsider” by Albert Camus. It was the same copy that I had read as a teenager, a “Penguin Modern Classic”. Adults over a certain age will remember the colour-coordinated nature of Penguin publications back then: black spines for Classics (Plato, Homer, Boccaccio, Tolstoy), orange for Fiction (slightly different shades for 19th century and 20th century novels), green for Crime, and an indeterminate light turquoise for Penguin Modern Classics.

Now that she has read a Camus novel, my daughter is aware of Existentialism and might be able to sum it up better than I can. As a teenager I relied on the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought for brief descriptions of philosophical terms, but all these years later I’ll refer you to these words, from Wikipedia:

Existentialism … is a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the problem of human existence and centres on the subjective experience of thinking, feeling, and acting … Existentialist thinkers frequently explore issues related to the meaning, purpose, and value of human existence.

We were still at school when leading Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre died. The newsreader on Capital Radio clearly didn’t know too much about him. A few of us who were reading English at A-Level, and had at least heard of Existentialism, were able to share our amusement at the way the news was announced: “John Paul Sarter, the famous French Extensionist, has died aged 74 …”

I am now able to share this story with my daughter too, but am wary of feeling smug about knowing that Sartre was an Existentialist rather than an “Extensionist”. Over 40 years after his death, I still haven’t read anything by him.

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