My Life in Books
As far back as I can remember I have always had too many books. I don’t mean too many, of course, but more than I had space for. I put this down to my parents, who were both keen readers, but mostly of library books. Somewhere along the way I began to accumulate my own collection, with help from various quarters including a self-educated uncle who introduced me to Dickens. So, once I got into the details of Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop, they were an eye-opener on the mysterious side to London. Maybe I was unconsciously identifying with Oliver, I don’t know, but the impression of the city as a labyrinth has never left me, nor have the vivid larger-than-life descriptions of grotesque characters like Fagin and Quilp. Movie adaptations that don’t capture this projected vividness have always struck me as flops. The 1948 film of Oliver Twist works really well in the way all the characters seem to stand out from the screen. I’ve never lost this interest in the connections between novels and film, hence my later book Cinematic Fictions.
Later reading in my teens was slightly hit or miss. Then one day I came across a collection of stories by Ray Bradbury with very unusual line drawings – by Joe Mugnaini, as I discovered very much later. One particular story caught my eye – ‘The Pedestrian.’ In this a man is arrested for walking at night, instead of sitting inside and watching TV like every other right-minded citizen. The irony is that the police car itself does the arresting. Because this ‘crime’ has virtually died out there’s no need for it to be manned and at the end of the story the pedestrian is taken away for ‘treatment.’ Maybe he recovers from his illness, maybe not. What fascinated me in the story was its strange perspective on one of the most mundane actions, although I couldn’t have explained it at the time.
In the same period, mid-1950s, I became an addict to the radio serial Journey into Space, which was much more striking in its dramatization of the unpredictable nature of space travel. Its sounds made the impact, like that of the space-locks opening and closing. I didn’t read the original Charles Chilton novels until quite a few years later, but I suppose one of the roots of my enthusiasm was seeing cross-overs between the different media. Both of these were examples of science fiction, of course, but I think even that didn’t quite strike me so much as the fact that the Bradbury had a much more striking cover than the Penguins which were standard at that time. Anyway, that interest grew over the years, despite the fact that when I studied English at Cambridge SF was strictly verboten, as was virtually all contemporary literature. A nice side to my interest came when much later Bradbury actually answered a query that I’d sent him about Fahrenheit 451
and, to cut a long research process very short, I eventually published my study Ray Bradbury with the University of Illinois Press.
Also, despite the restrictions on literary study when I was an undergraduate, one of the most enjoyable publishing activities I’ve had over recent years has been editing the Science Fiction series for Liverpool University Press. Fast forward to the 1970s, when as an earnest postgraduate I was working on Henry James and got to know another researcher who was working on Jewish-American fiction. Portnoy’s Complaint came like a breath of fresh air after HJ and suddenly opened up possibilities of voice and humour. Above all, it was a cheeky novel going against all sorts of ‘rules’ of decorum. Remember this was back when writers and booksellers could still be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. This interest should have led to a book about black humour fiction which I finished back in the 1980s, but an editor pulled the plug on the series and that was that.
Another discovery back in the late fifties was political writing. This sounds very grand but actually it was much lower-key. I discovered Brave New World, obviously missing virtually all the intellectual references that Huxley packs into the novel, but still picking up something of the application of science to society and the broader side to ‘correct’ behaviour. Then another recommendation came from a school friend – to read David Karp’s One.
This never became well-known and I’ve never met anyone who has even heard of Karp, but he was a writer of political fiction at the time. One describes the interrogation and brainwashing of a college professor who has routinely been informing the authorities about his students and colleagues. It’s a grim story because he assumes he’s orthodox and safe – and he isn’t at all. The novel is obviously much closer to Orwell than Huxley, but it began to get me interested in the Cold War. I hope that it didn’t get me interested in an academic career! But whether it did or not, it helped me develop an interest that bore fruit with books like Brainwashing: The Fictions of Mind Control from Kent State University Press.
The image used at the beginning of this post is by photophilde.