"Mystery books were daring and exciting, firing up my imagination and making me yearn to become a girl detective or even a secret agent. They also empowered me to make up impromptu ghost stories around the campfire for my Girl Scout troop and sneak into the cemetery at night on a dare."
For me, books are closely tied up with place. I often remember where I was when I read a book that made a strong impression. This may happen even with the books of early childhood. I remember at the age of five having two books that I was inordinately proud of owning. I remember the shelf in my bedroom on which I kept them. I remember reading them in the garden under a jacaranda tree.
The books in question were very peculiar. One was The Boys’ Book of Merchant Shipping—a small book with a blue cover. Inside were pictures of various ships, with their tonnage and other particulars listed. It must have been very dull, but I loved it with a passion. Then there was Ginger’s Adventures. This was written in rhyming verse (rather like Longfellow’s “[The Song of] Hiawatha,” and was the story of a dog that escapes from a life of luxury to go and live on a farm. The life of luxury was with a girl, who made him sit on silk cushions; the life in the country was with a boy. There was a very obvious message there—as there is in so much children’s literature.
Later, as an adult, I remember my first discovery of Somerset Maugham, in my view one of the finest short story writers of the 20th century. That discovery occurred when I was engaged in research at an institute in New York State. I associate Maugham with that summer, with that place. Then I remember the precise moment and the exact place where I discovered the works of W.H. Auden, my favourite poet. That was in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, in the middle of what amounted to a civil war. I remember picking up a volume of Auden’s poetry from a library shelf. I remember borrowing it and taking it off to read over a cup of coffee. I had no idea that I would end up reading Auden over many years and eventually writing a book about his work.
I go back to my favourite books time and time again. I read Jane Austen afresh every few years. I travel with Auden’s Collected Shorter Poems in my suitcase. When I am indulging my passion for sailing, I take Homer’s Odyssey with me and read that. I love the way Homer calls his sea “the wine-dark sea.” I have just returned from a sailing trip in Greece where I came across that phrase on several occasions and looked out over exactly the sea that Odysseus would have surveyed.
The world can be a vale of tears. We live in times of great tension and anxiety. Books, and the memories they provide, are our solace, our reassuring night-light in the darkness of our days.
Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, among other series. He lives in Scotland.
I learned a lot from books growing up, but probably not in the way one might think. For example, the first book I fell in love with as a child was given to me by my godmother. I lost it, naturally, and have never been able to find it again (mostly because I can’t remember the title), but it was a book of fairy tales. Only in these fairy tales, horrible things happened to people who did bad things. I believe one woman lied and therefore had her eyes pecked out by a bird, as birds are wont to do to liars.
Come to think of it, that book would explain a lot. I’ve always had a rather morbid sense of justice. Clearly it’s my godmother’s fault.
I graduated from grim fairy tales, no pun intended, to other works of cautionary instruction. Who can forget when Nancy Drew poured salt on top of a mean girl’s ice cream sundae? (Lesson: Don't be mean.) Or when the Hardy Boys “accidentally” dunked a bully in a lake? (Lesson: Don't be a bully.) All the while these characters were doing good deeds, like solving crimes and teaching us important life lessons. Win-win.
And then there were the ever-virtuous lessons to be learned from the works of Edgar Allan Poe. For example, I learned to never kill my neighbor and bury his body beneath my floor lest I go crazy and give myself away when the police come to question me. Valuable lesson, that.
Eventually—and inevitably—Stephen King came into my life. Who can forget her first Stephen King story? Not I, dear reader. And like so many before me, I found myself glued to the pages of a King imagining at an early age, namely a short story called “The Cat From Hell.” Again, I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t do pharmaceutical testing on cats and subsequently kill thousands of them. They will have their revenge. They will have their day.
There were more, of course. Writers who enthralled me. Who tested my morals and my resolve. Who pushed me to be a better person. Who stunned me with how cleverly they painted their characters. (I’m looking at you, Sir Author Conan Doyle and Jane Austen.) With how surreptitiously they drew me into their worlds. (And you, James Herriot and Mary Stewart.) With how deftly they left me speechless. (And you, Saki and Terry Pratchett.)
So, you might be asking yourself what this education did for me in the long run. Well, let me tell you, dear reader, it did something miraculous. It taught me from a very early age that creativity and imagination are our greatest and most valuable gifts. With them, we can do anything. We can solve anything. We can change the world.
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Darynda Jones has won numerous awards for her work including a prestigious RITA®, a Golden Heart®, and a Daphne du Maurier, and her books have been translated into over 17 languages. As a born storyteller, she grew up spinning tales of dashing damsels and heroes in distress for any unfortunate soul who happened by. Darynda lives in the Land of Enchantment, also known as New Mexico, with her husband and two beautiful sons, the Mighty, Mighty Jones Boys.