Saturday, November 16, 2013

Off-topic: Does childhood reading shape your sense of what's good?

When I was a child, I read voraciously, as most of us probably did.  What I didn't have was any kind of framework for putting these books into context, and except for Laura Ingalls Wilder, I didn't really pay much attention to the authors' names, much less know who they were.  I knew the names of Kipling and Stevenson because of "Just-So Stories" and their poems, respectively, but the names didn't signify anything except entertainment.

Some of them were more important in the aggregate than as individual texts. There was a long series of juvenile biographies that I made a beeline for every time I went to the library. The ones on Elizabeth Blackwell and George Washington Carver made a special impression, but I ate them all up.

Two of my favorites were a couple of books of fairy tales, one with "The Little Mermaid" and  "The Tinder-Box" and "The Little Match Girl" and "The Snow-Queen"; I think I knew about Hans Christian Andersen at that point.  But I didn't pay any attention to the author of the other book, because I didn't know his name, though his stories"The Happy Prince" and "The Nightingale and the Rose" were ones I read over and over.  Who'd ever heard of Oscar Wilde, anyway? Not me.

And my very favorite books of all for a while,  which I picked out of a bargain bin somewhere because of their covers, had stories of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Cadmus and the dragon's teeth, and  Proserpina,  and Medusa.  One was Tanglewood Tales and the other was A Wonder Book. It was years later  before I figured out that Nathaniel Hawthorne had written them and a while longer before I figured out that he was also the person who wrote The Scarlet Letter. When I read them, though, he was as anonymous to me as those series biographers. I was only interested in the stories and not the style, especially the stories of Cadmus and of Proserpina, for some reason. I know that for a long time those in children's literature thought that the Hawthorne books were too preachy stylistically for children, but I didn't find them so.  

So here is my question: I read a lot of other things, too, as did we all, and a lot of stuff I don't remember.  Was there something in those stories, some literary quality that I didn't have any sense of perceiving at the time, that was making them memorable? Was it style?

What made a book memorable to you, and did it have an effect on how you developed as a reader?


profacero said...

Fairy tales, folktales and mythology, and it was all very useful later on because it taught narratology among other things.

I also read a lot of Erich Fromm and Zen Buddhism, mid-century texts on how to be. These had a very great influence that I tend to discount. Others were reading the Bible and things like that, but I was reading these things instead. It was healthful.

Flavia said...

Oooh. This is a really interesting question.

I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder too, and the Betsy-Tacy books, and when I was a little older a whole series of historical fiction books for girls, each named after the heroine and set in different periods ("Caroline," "Rachel," etc.). And I do consider myself a deeply historicist scholar and one interested in material culture, the lived reality of different periods, etc. So maybe there's some connection there.

But on the other hand...I read a TON of fantasy books, books involving magic, etc. (and unicorns: SO MANY UNICORNS), and I'm almost 100% disinterested in fantasy now; I don't even like magical realism. But insofar as that reading is about an openness to other worlds and experiences, perhaps it's still relevant.

Stylistically or formally. . . not sure.

undine said...

profacero--I hadn't thought of it, but yes, years later reading Propp and Todorov, all that early reading made them make much more sense. Reading those Zen books must have made for interesting conversations with your Bible-reading peers.

Flavia--I will have to try Betsy-Tacy some time. There was another book, All-of-a-Kind Family, of which I only remember that they had a bagful of dimes and all could help themselves as they needed them for streetcars (whatever they were; I was not a city kid). That's all I remember about the novel, but it sounded so giving, so sharing, that I was impressed. You must have burned yourself out on unicorns.

sophylou said...

I'd say the Betsy-Tacy books along with Laura Ingalls Wilder got me interested in history, especially late 19th-century or so (I was fairly fuzzy on dates then). My parents tell me that after a family trip to Colonial Williamsburg when I was about 7 I told EVERYONE all about how fabulous Williamsburg was, so I think that was pretty formative as well.

I also did a lot of very serious, very over-my-head reading (Crime and Punishment! Exodus! and so on), which is shaping my current research in a funny way, in that I'm focusing on "girls reading serious books".