Thursday, July 10, 2014

first books

I didn't grow up with children's books in English. I had no access to a library and avidly wanted to read. I took up the books my mother was using to teach herself English. They were:
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
Jonathan's Swift's Gulliver's Travels
Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth

I don't know if these were the best choices for her to learn idiom in Canada in the 1950s and 60s, but that was what she had. The Jonathan Swift is a green hard-cover book that purports to be a reprint of the 1735 Dublin edition. Nouns are capitalized and the meaning or use of some words would now be considered archaic. For example--and I can open the book at any page to find an example--"But I shall not anticipate the Reader with farther Descriptions of this Kind..."

I think my mother realized that Gulliver's Travels wouldn't help her navigate the grocery store, so that book at least became mine.

As a child, I suspected the lands described in Gulliver's Travels were fictitious--but I also wasn't really sure.  

How often did I reread Pride and Prejudice? Often. By adolescence I expected potential boyfriends to be Darcys. I was ready to play scornful Elizabeth. Guys never got it. That was one way I learned the difference between real life and books.

By early adulthood P&P had become my emotional equivalent for thumb-sucking. When I felt depressed, I picked it up. I loved the language and consoled myself with the story.

I haven't read it for a while now, though I listened to it as an audio book about a year ago--when I was trying to decide whether I was game for the audio book experience. I looked for a free service online and found Librivox, which is good depending on the skill of the reader. (Even if it's a free service staffed by volunteers, I don't think people learning English as a second language should be practicing by recording Middlemarch, for example.)
I do highly recommend the recording of Pride and Prejudice by Elizabeth Klett: 

Today I was in a secondhand bookstore with a friend and I saw the same edition of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth that I read at eight years old. I'm pretty sure it's the same because it's the same cover with an original sale price of 35 cents--as I remember.

I was fascinated by the world described in this book. Although it was foreign, I believed it was real in a way that the lands Gulliver visited weren't. How much was description of social conditions, how much romanticized, I don't know. I'll have to reread the book. I bought it for $2. When I was eight, I couldn't understand what a concubine was. I think I know that now.

I was an adult before I discovered Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh...


  1. Ah, the books of youth. I remember finding something rather racy on our shelves (among the 'encyclopedias' collected from the grocery store (so and so many dollars spent on carrots buys you A - Ch). The protagonists name was Roak or something odd like that. He got up to some mischief but much was innuendo and while I 'knew' it was naughty stuff, I couldn't quite get the gist of why... You've made me want to read P&P again. It's been a while.

  2. It would be wonderful, Carin, if you could find Roak again.