For me, one way I forget my immediate surroundings is by escaping to memories. And where do I go to forget? The past. After all, reading, Matt Haig tells us, is how to travel in time. In my very first post nearly six months ago, wondered if I was too sentimental. I never did reach a confident conclusion – but for books, I will take the risk regardless.
In this case, I am taking Louise’s idea in a slightly different direction: it is not the fictional words I am being transported back to; but the worlds I inhabited when I first read those words. I look back on them fondly and forever enjoy doing so. One thing’s for sure: I don’t ever want to forget.
What follows is a number of “reading firsts” or – perhaps more snappily – “first reads”; the first work I read by a particular author. It isn’t an extensive or exhaustive list, merely a happy peek into a lost world, a treasure trove of books I once so delighted in reading that I can still remember the time and place (more or less) – in some cases over a decade on.
In his history of the English language, Melvyn Bragg writes:
Written words stimulate the imagination as much as any other external reality – fire, storm, thunder – yet they can express an internal reality – hope, philosophy, mood – in ways which also provoke the imagination, engage with that astounding faculty and set it off to make more words, adding to the visible map of the mind.
And with that; welcome to my mind…
My First Graham Greene: ‘The Destructors’
“They made me do it” – Donnie Darko
My First Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea
I read this, appropriately enough, in Florida: sat by the pool in our Disney World resort, Pop Century, in 2008. So hot was it at the time, that the glue on the spine melted and the book (partially) fell apart. Fortunately, I had just finished. I think I read this in one sitting (though, admittedly, that’s not especially challenging).
My First Elmore Leonard: Hombre
It was either this or his short story collection, When the Women Come Out to Dance. I’m certain it was Hombre, though, which I had picked up at the airport. Women was one of the – if not the only – English-language books I found later in the local shop around the corner from our hotel on some Canary Island over ten years ago (or, more likely, eleven or thirteen).
I loved Hombre because it was a Western, which was new to me. I went on to read a number of Leonard novels on subsequent holidays: Valdez is Coming, 52 Pick-Up, Swag, Glitz. Glitz always stuck with me because of particularity graphic description during (if I remember correctly) an autopsy.
I haven’t read Elmore Leonard since. I should do. I remember, many years later, at uni, we read some of his advice on writing; he was suddenly brought back into my consciousness and I was pleased. Despite not going back to his work after this, I was later saddened to hear of his death in 2013.
My First Leonard Michaels: Going Places
I discovered Leonard Michaels through his son, Jesse, the vocalist for Bay Area ska-punk band, Operation Ivy, one of the first bands I loved and whose lyrics I admired. I now love his father Leonard’s writing. Going Places was his first published collection of short stories, so I began there. I still have this copy, alongside more polished reprints of his work.
My First George Orwell: Animal Farm
I read this alongside The Old Man and the Sea in Orlando. In fact, more precisely, I read Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange on the flight over, followed by Animal Farm. After Hemingway, I dipped into the collected stories of Edgar Allan Poe; ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ was amazing, whilst ‘The Premature Burial’ was truly terrifying.
I happen to believe Orwell’s non-fiction to be far superior to his fiction, but I only read the former years later. Either way, I loved Animal Farm. Oddly, given the high regard in which I hold it, I am yet to re-read it. That will change this year.
The First Poem I Loved: ‘Bananas and Cream’ by David McCord
The First Book I Ever Re-Read: Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
I first read this in 2009 during my first year of uni. I was having a rough time. I was also due to visit my Uncle in Madrid during the summer break. Having read The Old Man and the Sea the year before, I already knew I liked Ernest Hemingway’s writing. Ergo, on my frequent train journeys between uni and home, I read Hemingway’s novel about life in Spain.
Last year I decided I wanted to read it again. And for the first time in the history of my reading habits – I did.
The First Book I Ever Loved: The Lucky Bear by Erwin Moser
Truthfully, I can’t be certain that this was definitely the first; but it’s the one I remember most, and most fondly. A while ago I went trawling through the loft trying to find it, to no avail. Then, a few nights ago, my Dad, sister’s boyfriend and I spent some two and a half hours moving everything from one space to a new loft, and I happened to look inside one box only to find it!!
I was – and remain – overjoyed.
Sadly, it’s missing its front cover (I remember this being the case last time I had it to hand); it could well be in some box among other books but, given the failed effort and pure chance that surround its rediscovery, I dare say its unlikely that I’ll see the cover any time soon. Which is a shame, because I can still picture it, and it was beautiful.
Nevertheless, I think this tidbit from The Lucky Bear is a grand place to end.
Bear sits in his favourite place,
a dreamy smile upon his face
Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language (London: Sceptre, 2016 ), p. 11.
Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive (Edinburgh & London: Canongate, 2016 ), p. 228.