Reading was often more intense than living. It seems to me now that
reading fiction was something I felt compelled to do because, from the
age of 10, I lived in the Wiltshire countryside. There was simply
nothing else to do. Lord of the Rings had evidently been invented for
boys who lived an utterly uneventful existence. Even when I graduated to
less obviously escapist reading, it seemed to me that many of the
novels I read were far more colourful, far more real, than life. I also
thought they were the way I would get from childhood to adulthood.
there is a large and highly profitable section of “teen fiction”
(occasionally more misleadingly labelled “young adult”) in most
bookshops. In the 1970s you went straight from Narnia to grown-up stuff.
For me, aged 12 or 13, there was an introductory phase of thrillers: my
favourite was Alistair MacLean, whose work I devoured, for his clever
plots as much as the derring-do. Recently I re-read Bear Island (after
growing up in the Highlands, then serving on Arctic convoys, MacLean was good on cold places). It was, in its way, rather good.
being really grown up began with Jean-Paul Sartre. Pretentiously
enough, his trilogy of novels, The Roads to Freedom, was my first
venture into proper adult fiction. Thrillingly, my copy of the first
volume, The Age of Reason, was confiscated by my housemaster at my
Benedictine monastery school. He had not read it, of course, but was
alarmed by the mere blurb on the cover: “Paris in 1939: a society of
pimps, prostitutes and artists. Mathieu’s mistress tells him that she is
pregnant...”, that sort of thing. To my surprise, my mother, when
informed, told Father Dennis to return the book to me. The author had
won the Nobel Prize, after all. Clearly, reading was the thing.