Saturday, 17 May 2014

Books you read over and over again - Elizabeth Kay


When I was a kid, my mother complained to one of my teachers that I read the same books over and over again. “Just as long as she’s reading,” said the teacher, with a smile. There were, of course several reasons why this happened. Firstly, we didn’t have that many books at home, so the choice was limited. My father’s books were all in Polish, and as I didn’t speak the language I didn’t find out until many years later that Sienkiewicz was a terrific writer. The book most people have heard of is Quo Vadis, which was made into a film. It’s available free on the Kindle. Secondly, I’d often enjoyed a book so much that I wanted to repeat the experience, get that same glow of visiting a favourite haunt once more. I think I practically knew The Chronicles ofNarnia and the Silver Brumby
books off by heart. And thirdly, by the time I was ten I’d read all the ones that interested me in the junior library. A couple of years later I managed to persuade the librarians to let me have a ticket the senior library, but I hadn’t the faintest idea how to choose a book amongst this wealth of material. I looked for anything about children and horses. This resulted in reading harrowing case histories of the NSPCC – I still vividly remember the one about the small boy kept in a chicken coop who could only cluck. The horse theme was a bit of a failure, as well. A book called There Must be a Pony by James Kirkwood sounded promising, but turned out to be about adult relationships, although they were seen from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy. The title was a reference to the story about a boy who is looking forward to his birthday, but only gets a heap of horse dung. “With all this shit,” he says, “there must be a pony.” A story about tigers materialised as something obscurely far Eastern with strange women doing even stranger things with bars of soap to a big game hunter.
It was Disraeli who said, “When I want to read a novel, I write one…” And way back then, it seemed to be a good solution. However, in the adult world very few writers read their own books for entertainment, and I’m no exception.
The stories that draw me back time and time again tend to be the ones that immerse me in their world, and it needs to be a world that’s very different to the one in which I live. The Mary Renault books – especially The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea – not only gave me an authentic central character, but opened my eyes to Ancient Greece in a very immediate and intimate way. You can understand Theseus’s belief in the supernatural very easily when the natural world behaves in strange and unpredictable ways, destroying whole cities with its earthquakes, and devastating farmland with tsunamis. I Claudius
and Claudius the God do something similar for ancient Rome, and once again the central character is so well-imagined that you really do see a very alien civilisation through the eyes of a member of the imperial family. More recently, Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell – Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – have had the same effect on me, and brought to life a period of history with all its intrigue, posturing, plotting and subsequent paranoia.
The last one in this list, chronologically, is The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (not to be confused with a the book of the same name by Michael Crichton). The moment it became available for the Kindle – and free, to boot – I downloaded it and re-read it straight away. Okay, it’s the white Victorian male proclaiming his dominance and superiority over the rest of life-kind, but it’s the first ever book to bring dinosaurs to life. We know a lot more about them now, and they’re not depicted all that accurately – but it doesn’t matter. You have to take it in context. When Conan Doyle wrote it, it was cutting-edge science. I have to admit that at the time I didn't believe in the unclimbable and unexplored table-top plateau that provides the setting for the book, but since then I've visited Venezuela and seen these tepuis for myself!
           Some of the scenes are the most terrifying of anything I’ve ever read; the creator of Sherlock Holmes really knew how to bump up the tension. His descriptions are fantastic, and there’s one passage towards the end of the book that made such an impression on me as a teenager that I’m determined to share it here.
“…Professor Challenger drew off the top of the case, which formed a sliding lid. Peering down into the box he snapped his fingers several times and was heard from the Press seat to say, “Come, then, pretty, pretty,” in a coaxing voice. An instant later, with a scratching, rattling sound a most horrible and loathsome creature appeared from below and perched itself on the side of the case… For a moment there was danger of a general panic. Professor Challenger threw up his hands to still the commotion, but the movement alarmed the creature beside him. Its strange shawl suddenly unfurled, spread and fluttered as a pair of leathery wings. Its owner grabbed at its legs, but too late to hold it. It had sprung from its perch and was circling slowly around the Queen’s Hall with a dry, leathery flapping of ten-foot wings, while a putrid and insidious odour pervaded the room…”


            I think one of the nicest things that can be said to any writer is that a child has read their book more than once. I was thrilled to bits when a librarian told me that a boy had taken out The Divide eleven times! I’ve also had parents telling me the something similar. Although I’ve written a number of books this is the one that children return to, and I feel privileged to have created something that has touched other lives in a positive way.


6 comments:

Chris Longmuir said...

I don't always remember the books I read, they don't stay with me. But I do remember The Lost World quite vividly and I must have been in my teens when I read it, and that's quite a long time ago! Good post.

Kathleen Jones said...

I still re-read books - particularly when I'm tired or depressed and want something familiar and soothing. As a child a read Anne of Green Gables and What Katy Did many times, also The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Moomin books. Still love them! Good post Elizabeth...

JO said...

Ah - the Lost World - set in the wilds of Venezuela and the might of Angel Falls. (I only knew that after I came home; if I'd read The Lost World before I went I think I;d have stayed at home!)

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I reread books all the time - like Kathleen, especially when I need cheering up or simply need to relax. Agatha Christie got me through my university finals (amazing how you forget who the murderer is!) I still reread Richmal Crompton's William Books, as well as E F Benson's Lucia Books - which get better and better, every time - and everything by Barbara Pym. Also go back to Tolkien every few years. I reread A Christmas Carol just about every Christmas. It's a wonder I get any new reading done, really, but I do!

Bill Kirton said...

I find if I leave a long gap between re-readings (and re-re-readings) the book often seems to say different things and yet simultaneously still offer the same pleasures of the earlier ones. I don't know how many times I've re-read Madame Bovary but I still need to now and again and am always in awe of Flaubert's achievement. Thanks for the reminder, Elizabeth.

madwippitt said...

Re-reading means it was a great book! So what a terrfic compliment about The Divide - and deservedly so. And ah, yes, the difficulties in the good old days of making that transition from junior fiction to adult. Thank goodness for historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy which helped to bridge that gap. Nowadays there are a fabulous selection of YA books ... :-)