« the Prince George's Information Commons | Main | limits of market mechanisms in education »

July 11, 2005

books I read as a teenager that I'd like to read again

On the blog "Balloon Juice," John Cole lists five books that he read as a teen or young adult and that he considers worth re-reading today. He asks some other bloggers to compile similar lists, picking them out by name. By way of Laura at 11D, the game reached Russell Arben Fox at In Medias Res, who passed it on to me. I'm flattered to be "tagged." Besides, nostalgia is one of my most pervasive and favorite emotions. So here goes ...

When I turned 12 and 13, I attended a very scary English school, then for boys only, physically resembling Hogwarts but much more concerned with corporal punishment and personal neatness. To get there, I rode British Rail by myself and often read the newspaper on the way. (The headlines must have been about recession, oil shortages, racial conflict in London, terrorist bombings, and revolution in Iran. The details change, but the wheel keeps turning.) Most of my books came either from the school's library or from the public library branch behind Victoria Station, where I would walk on my own.

I mention all this because it's only by thinking of physical places that I can conjure up titles of books from that era. Among the ones that I would like to read again were Rudyard Kipling's Kim and William McFee's Casuals of the Sea (1916). I thought Kim was a great adventure (no parents, espionage, mysticism, the Empire--what more could a boy want?). Later in life, I would have assumed that it was sheer imperial propaganda. But Pankraj Mishra's recent essay in the New York Review of Books has made me want to look at it again (although I'd rather read Mishra himself). As for Casuals of the Sea--it was some kind of fictional biography, beginning with the hero's conception in an extramarital sex scene that I shouldn't have read when I was 12 (although I suspect it was tame). The protagonist then lived in London and worked on ships, but I remember little else.

During those years, I read a series of Napoleonic sea novels that traced the hero's career from midshipman to admiral. It wasn't the "Horatio Hornblower" series, because I had read that earlier. I vaguely remember that the author's name was Irish. Could I have been reading the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien? It seems unlikely, especially since I read Post Captain in 2004 and had no recollection of it whatsoever.

For the next five years, we lived in Syracuse, New York, making frequent, long visits to New York City and spending the summers in England, with two separate months in Paris. I believe a read a lot of history and archaeology in those years. The one book that I recall well enough to want to re-read is Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, which is basically the history of the idea that human nature is highly changeable. I would call that idea "historicism," and it became my main intellectual interest right through graduate school. Wilson brilliantly combines intellectual history with portraits of major political figures: above all, Lenin.

In about tenth grade, I read a series of anti-totalitarian novels from the 1930s, cementing my liberalism. They included Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four (which I was assigned to read, with millions of others, in 1984), Malraux's Man's Fate, and Koestler's Darkness at Noon. The 1930s seemed much closer then than they do today, partly because another 20 years have elapsed, and partly because the Soviet Union still existed.

I also read lots of mystery, suspense, fantasy, and adventure, ranging from Ivanhoe to John le Carre. I fondly remember Ursula Le Guin as well as Tolkien. I have no idea whether I would find the Earthsea trilogy fascinating or sheer hokum today, but I'm looking forward to trying it with my little daughter in a few years.

One summer in my later teens, I went each day to the National Art Library inside the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is open to the public as a nineteenth-century venture in democratic education. There I read Ernst Gombrich's Art and Illusion with great interest. Gombrich was deeply influenced by his friend Karl Popper; he saw the history of art as a series of scientific experiments in representing the world realistically. Since the stone age, people have found or randomly created objects that happen to resemble the world. They notice the resemblance and so learn to imitate nature. But each imitation is wrong in some ways; later artists learn to correct it. One of Gombrich's aphorisms is "Making comes before matching."

By the way, Gombrich's account of art history is intended to answer the following question: "Why is it that different ages and different nations have represented the visible world in such different ways?" He replies that art has always had a single purpose--representation--and it has proceeded by trial and error. This theory contradicts a historicist account, according to which each "culture" has its own fundamental conception of art. In my late teens, I wanted somehow to put those two ideas together.

So whom do I "tag" to continue this game? How about: Prairie Weather, Brad Rourke, Brett Marston, Ciarn O'Kelly, "Imshin", Anjali Taneja, and Eli.

July 11, 2005 10:25 AM | category: fine arts , memoir | Comments


I'll be. This is still circulating?

No better time to talk about leisure reading than during the summer, though...

July 11, 2005 10:31 AM | Comments (4) | posted by John Cole

What a fascinating collection of literary memories, Peter! Thanks for participating; you've significantly added to my own personal list of to-read books. And I liked the nod to John le Carre; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was one of my treasured favorites when I was in high school, but I only remembered that after I'd already written up my list.

July 11, 2005 3:23 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Russell Arben Fox

Sheesh! My childhood was so long ago I've almost forgotten. Will do my best to recall and get back to you. I read a lot, but not necessarily selectively or well!

July 13, 2005 2:21 PM | Comments (4) | posted by PW

I'm coloring up my memories right now. . .

July 13, 2005 11:49 PM | Comments (4) | posted by Brett

Site Meter