May 22, 2011

In the oldest eyes there's a soul so young

According to the more helpful Wikipedia, rather than the less helpful MSN whose article reminded me at the time, World Book Day was on April 23rd. In the UK, just to be contrary and to avoid Easter it seems, we hold it on March 3rd. Of course, World Book Day is about encouraging children to read and to realise the enjoyment and journeys of imagination that we all know and love from the printed word.

Plying the airwaves was a short BBC series called My Life in Books, and each edition brought together two notable people from (predominantly) television to talk about their favourite books and what each meant to them and perhaps what those books says about themselves. The series was mercifully free of celebrities in the traditional, quote-unquote sense, a television production more akin to the cosy confines of Telly Addicts with comfortable sofas, coffee tables and carpets. MSN had asked its own staff the question at the time, and it sparked the thought for me.

What book changed my life? Is there in fact a predictable answer?

I was quite young, no more than ten years old, when I discovered the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a single nine-and-a-quarter pound tome of 2537 pages. It unlocked a whole world of incredible and impossibly unlikely sounding words, accompanied by squiffy pronunciation symbols and a raft of archaic references that made very nearly no sense whatsoever. To an essay writer of moderate enthusiasm at school but of less enthusiasm for the contorted, impenetrable lexicon of Shakespeare, but simultaneously the indisputed top speller in her class, this was in fact exciting stuff. What the dictionary impressed upon me most was the notion of there being a word for every instance, a word contrived to represent a precise situation or condition. Plain English I applaud, against the sheer arrogance of some individuals whose writing I detest for the poor sentence construction that seems geared to both obfuscation and self-aggrandisement, but I don't applaud Plain English At All Costs. There is a time and place for addendum, adjunct and appendix, but not the wholesale replacement with addition or also.

There exists a word for every occasion, save for insufficiency of acquaintance, I might say. This is probably not so different from Peter Roget's outlook when he devised his Thesaurus. But like Roget, the OED to James Murray and his immediate predecessors Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge and Frederick Furnivall, and much as were the individual works of other lexicographers such as Noah Webster, Samuel Johnson, John Phillips, Thomas Blount, Robert Cawdrey, and John Withals, was indeed a desideratum of the necessary qualification hitherto unsupplied in any language. To this day I keep a dictionary within easy reach of my desk, though to spare my back I prefer my Chambers Concise version, of a mere but satisfyingly and improvingly grubby well-thumbed 1298 pages.

Rather than one book singled out from its friends for such lifechangery, when I thought about this entry originally I had in mind four others that contributed, especially in my younger years.

Sci-fi! was a collection of children's short stories by one or more authors lost in both the mists of time and my memory. In fact, I don't even know if these were excerpts from complete novels. Star Trek wasn't a big feature in my life; Star Wars existsed only as a colouring book with a red cover and Lando on the front cover, and some three-inch tall plastic figures with chewing marks on the legs. So books were my real introduction to space, foreign planets, and aliens, and Sci-fi! made sufficient impact on me that I still remember bits of it: the rubbery Hypnoplastoids from Gerneid; Bork and Hamer who broke out of Pris-Sat 9; there was a young boy and the hospitalised old man, and a somewhat symbiotic relationship that foreshadowed nuclear disarmament (very Cold War that one, looking back). Despite my best efforts I can't find a copy anywhere on the web. I do know, now, that it's pronounced sye-fye, and not sky-fye... That lightweight introduction brought me gently to Nicholas Fisk (that is, David Higginbottom) whose works I devoured at school, which led to the choose-your-own-adventure Fighting Fantasy books that in the invariable absence of both friends and dice, I played myself using the "cover the options, and think of a number" method. My Dark Ages ended much later with the timeworn Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, quickly followed by most of Douglas Adams' other works in that vein, accompanied by an occasional Asimov title. But the fantasy genre perhaps lay deeper.

While still at school and having experimented with science fiction, Asterix and dictionaries, I discovered David Eddings. Holy cow. Pawn of Prophecy, the first book in his series The Belgariad hit me like a ton of bricks. I'd never known fiction like it, with characters and a depth of backstory I hadn't imagined was possible in writing. Who could not tingle with excitement at Garion's first faltering use of magic, or the power belied by Aunt Pol's school teachery demeanor, and wish for a shock of silver hair; who could not love Hettar's unique and unbridled love of horses; who could not enjoy a little laugh at Silk's secret sign language so cleverly presented to the reader as an entirely new idea? While Eddings was perhaps treading the overly familiar territory of Tolkein before him, in my happy ignorance I had not read The Hobbit, nor Lord of the Rings. And so before very long I would get through each day almost jumping with excitement to go to bed early and completely immerse myself in my newfound world for hours and hours and hours. The Belgariad led without hesitation to its successor The Mallorean, and the world of Torak, Belgarion and Ce'Nedra continued apace. There was a quite considerable hole in my life when I turned the last page of Seeress of Kell. I'm of a mind to re-read the entire series starting tomorrow, but, incredibly, I am yet to acquaint myself with the land of Middle Earth and perhaps I should.

If there was a Roald Dahl book that had any effect on me, it was part two of his autobiography, the same autobiography which he claimed he never would write. Boy was a window into the young Dahl life of boarding schools, canings by the Headmaster and holidays in Norway, but Going Solo was much more interesting because it was of a time slightly more familiar through the regularity of The Six o'Clock News, poppies and Panorama; a time of the great war, of lions and snakes and rickety aeroplanes, and adults. But why stop with Dahl? Lots of other people have written about their lives, or written about other people's lives. And so it began, stepping for a time into the shoes of actors, television presenters, sportsmen and women, even lexicographers. I was fascinated to find out about famed commentator Murray Walker's military days, Billy Connelly's shipyard upbringing, Farrockh Bulsara's enthusiasm to join some little pop band, and the daring tales of Anne Mustoe and Lois Price, who biked all over the world just because it felt like a good idea.

But still there are others, too, without wanting to create a list of every book I have ever read. Cyclecraft made me re-evaluate the way I ride my bicycle, for better and possibly for worse. The Well of Loneliness educated me in its stilted manner about self-confidence and the internal wrangling of a couple of friends of mine. A Brief History of Time made me want to be a scientist, before confusing me so comprehensively that it was 15 years before I understood The Universe in a Nutshell. My brane still hurts a little bit.

I recently worked my way through The Measure of All Things (the Seven Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World), Lambert's Railway Miscellancy, and I'm plugging through Rush: Rock Music and The Middle Class. I shall need to get some fiction back in there!

Every book that 'changed my life!' could be considered a favourite in its heyday, and perhaps a stepping stone to my outlook of today. The main characters of a little story book called The Lorax are a narrating, short stubby creature with a huge whiskery moustache, a small boy, and a seemingly wise but reclusive thing known as the Once-ler that as I recall lives inside a ramshackle treehouse. Printed in a magnificent palette of about five colours, and full of mechanised flights of fancy in an increasingly barren world, Dr Seuss impressed hugely upon my young mind the values of environmental responsibility. In fact, despite not having read the book for years and years, I can still picture nearly every page and if I try really hard, even some of the words.

The landscape of magnificent Truffula Trees, so bountiful in their days and chopped down with ever more enthusiasm by ever more efficient axe-swinging caterpiller-tracked machines, as though the very lovechild of Heath Robinson and Rube Goldberg, became reduced to a land of stumps. Only one seed remained, held by the Once-ler who finally mourned its actions and at last given to the small boy in the hope that he might learn of their destruction and begin their long journey to repopulation. I learned about the fantastic yet blinded attraction to invent a better and better machine -- a better weapon -- and I also learned about the immense sadness of the Lorax at the state of his world, of unfettered greed at the expense of the very land in which we live and on which our lives depend.

All this from a children's book read nearly 30 years ago? In fact it's as affecting to me now as it was then.

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