by William H. Benson
December 4, 2003
Horror has never held my attention. I have tried to complete a Stephen King novel numerous times, and invariably after a couple of chapters of gruesome and fanciful scenes, I give up. But then two years ago King wrote a non-fiction book, On Writing, in which he described how he came up with ideas that he was able to translate into his stories. That book I easily finished.
Westerns I also cannot finish. The same can be said of Isaac Azimov’s science fiction stories or of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings tales. I start, hoping to finish at least one of them, but then other more appealing and more satisfying works just crowd them out.
If I had more time I would read the classics, those books that Mark Twain said everybody liked but nobody read. And I especially like to read works that explain the illusive meanings behind Shakespeare’s plays. Arthur Miller said that nobody these days really reads Shakespeare; they read about Shakespeare because the body of work that has built up and around him is much more enriching than the plays are themselves. I would agree.
These days with the limited time available I read mostly non-fiction—intellectual biography and history, but on occasion I will pick up certain detective fiction writers—Sue Grafton’s alphabet series, Robert Parker’s wise-talking Spenser, and Dick Francis’s British horse-racing stories. I read them rather than solve cross-word puzzles; they seem about the same thing.
People arrive in this life with certain inclinations or preferences seemingly built into them for what they will read or will not read, and those preferences can improve, depending upon a person’s stage in life, what is going on in their lives, their education level, the time available, and their level of determination to exercise their minds.
C. S. Lewis, who died on November 22, 1963, the same day as President Kennedy, had the enviable talent of being able to write well in a number of different genre—essays, theology, literary criticism, and fiction–but he is probably best remembered for his extraordinarily successful Christian allegories, The Chronicles of Narnia, today considered children’s literature. In an essay Lewis wrote that there was no single literary taste common to all children; some read nothing other than for information. They will not read when they can find another form of entertainment. Some like to read fantasies and marvels. Some are omnivorous readers, gulping down anything.
In other words, children are like adults in that they have inclinations to read or not to read and preferences of what they will or will not read.
Lewis wrote: “We can approach the matter differently by listing books liked by the young: Aesop’s Fables, The Arabian Nights, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and Treasure Island; the last was written especially for children, and yet it is read with pleasure by many adults. I who disliked The Arabian Nights as a child, dislike them still.”
To Lewis’s list I would also add: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and Martian stories and also Frankenstein. Both Tarzan and Frankenstein’s creation are most interesting in that they both supposedly learned to read on their own, Tarzan as a juvenile and Frankenstein’s monster as a full-grown creation. In fact, that monster bypassed Dick and Jane and other children’s stories and began with Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, heavy material for anyone.
Widespread reading as a child is important, if for no other reason than to discover his or her preferences. It also leads to better reading. Harold Bloom, the literary critic, recently published a new book, Stories and Poems for Extraordinarily Intelligent Children of All Ages, in which he wrote, “If one is to ever read Shakespeare and Chaucer, the best way to prepare is to read Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling.”
It also can develop more discerning thought processes and better thinking skills. For a child, few things are more crucial to their future than reading much and often. And besides it can be just plain fun. The stories and ideas we encounter as a child just seem the best, and they remain with us for the rest of our lives.