SHOOTING THE BREEZE
By Eric C. Forbes
WHY READ? Yes, why read? I’m often asked this question. There is nothing like reading the really good stuff. I somehow come alive when I read the really good stuff. I read because I have no choice, really. Was it not Gustave Flaubert who once said that reading is like falling into a deep ravine from which you can never, ever climb out? Moreover, I like to know about the world around me, I like to learn about stuff, and good books are the best way to do this. When you add to this a predilection for interesting prose styles and an interest in the human condition, what else can I do but read?
The purpose of fiction is to understand the world we live in, to recognise the imbecility of our actions and the fact that we keep on repeating our mistakes and not learning from them at all as well as the sadness and despair we experience in our daily lives. Literature teaches us about the universality of humanity and human experiences, and the fact that, despite our differences, we are not so different after all. Life is paradoxical: we pray to the same god, yet there is no sense of connection between us; most of the time, we find that we understand each other even though we pray to different gods.
Most of us lead sheltered lives, but books transport us to worlds we never knew existed. With books, we go everywhere. There’re lots of lessons we can learn from a lifetime of reading. Fiction opens up our emotional spectrum and makes us aware of emotions we didn’t know we had in us. It grips and engages us with the questions it asks, the people and situations it creates, the complexity of emotions it stirs. A world without books, I believe, is unimaginable and unbearable.
I enjoy reading novels, short stories, poetry and some nonfiction, especially biographies, culture, literary criticism, memoirs, social history and travel literature. From an early age, I read everything that came my way. I grew up in an environment where scholarship was nurtured and revered and the value of books unquestioned. My father was an English-language and History schoolteacher who instilled in me a love of literature and history.
From my father’s collection of books in the 1960s and ’70s, I read the classics: the Brontës, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, W. Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie (the unsurpassed queen of English crime fiction), John Creasey, Alistair MacLean, James A. Michener [remember Hawaii (1959)?], Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, Dennis Wheatley (whose occult potboilers were firm teenage staples), etc. I read them because they were there and part of my father’s prized collection; perhaps they were my father’s favourite books. My father shaped my reading tastes more than anyone then or since; it was he who ignited my adolescent love of words and literature. He had a great love of 19th-century British and American fiction which he passed on to me, and he was open to 20th-century fiction and fiction in translation of almost any kind. It was from him that I learned to appreciate and enjoy the fiction of Erskine Caldwell, D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen and the translated works of Alberto Moravia, especially his novel, The Woman of Rome (1949), and his collection of stories, Roman Tales (1954).
On my own, I discovered the works of Annie Dillard, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Alice McDermott, Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, Anne Tyler, John Updike, etc. I enjoy reading Australian fiction, too, especially the fictions of Kate Grenville, David Malouf, Colleen McCullough and Tim Winton.
Of course, I went through my fair share of Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys like everyone else; Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) were prominent features of my wonder years. Those were wonderful adventures and mysteries. I still remember them to this day.
Once you stumble and fall into Flaubert’s ravine, you never want to climb out of it again!
There’s nothing like losing oneself in the pages of a good book.
So what did you read when you were growing up?