Reading – Part Two – The Formative Years

Posted on Thu 05/12/2022 by

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By Anton Lang ~

Sometime in the mid 1990s my Mum gave me an old hard cover novel, that I recognised straight away. It was a copy of Charles Dickens A Tale Of Two Cities. The dust cover had long ago frayed and torn, and was no longer on the red hard cover. I was given this novel for Christmas in 1960 by my Grandfather, my Mum’s father, and I was nine years old, and probably, this may have been the first time I had been given a book as a present. Now, at the time, I started to read it, but keep in mind I was only nine years old, and I’m not all that certain about the wisdom of giving a nine year old one of the Classics, and expecting him to understand all the nuances associated with a novel of that type. I’m still not all that certain I did ever finish reading it as a child, but after Mum gave it to me, I did read it, and I did take in and understand all those nuances. Now, to give my Grandfather his due, this was in fact an abridged version of the novel, and was printed by the famed English Publishers of children’s books, Dean & Son Ltd, publishers of a multitude of books for children, so it was in fact, published specifically for children to read. That book is still in my bookshelf to this day, and it’s now 61 years old, and the oldest book (continuously owned by me) on my bookshelf.

When it came to start reading novels, the earliest I can remember is at High School, and here, that came about with the book reviews we had to complete for English, and starting from the first year at High School. Now, I know there were a number of novels we were given to read, but I only remember four of them, Flowers For Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico, The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan, Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, and The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat, and of those, only one of them, John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps have I read in my adulthood. I found a copy of this novel in a second hand book store. I was looking for another novel, and I found this relatively well looked after copy of the novel, considering the print date for this copy was 1965, so when I found it, it was already more than thirty years old. I immediately recognised it because it had the same cover art as the one I read first at High School. This novel has virtually never been out of print, and has had so much different cover art, that it was a rarity that I did find this old copy with that artwork. Even though the story was familiar, when I read the novel this time, it was again like reading it for the first time, a rollicking spy drama, and I’m certain I didn’t get anywhere near as much joy reading it at High School as I did at this later date. Incidentally, this novel has been made into a movie on four occasions.

I joined the Royal Australian Air Force straight out of High School, just short of my sixteenth birthday, as a Trades Apprentice. Now as a Teenager, reading was not really something I did, and that was the same for all of us doing that Trade at that time. I did get hold of a couple of early crime fiction novels by an Australian author, Arthur W Upfield, and these were crime fiction in an Australian setting, and the main Detective was part Aboriginal, so the setting was also centred around Indigenous Australia, but again, there would only have been a couple of them that I actually remember.

Other than those couple of thin paperbacks, The first ‘thick’ novel I remember reading was a Harold Robbins novel, one that was hugely popular (for all the obvious reasons) with the 16 year old boys on our Trades Course at the time. I think I was the sixth to get my hands on it and it was pretty dog eared by the time I got to read it. That novel was The Carpetbaggers, and while it was pretty obvious why teenage boys were reading it, it piqued my interest, and in fact, that’s where my reading started, not fully in earnest, but I was always reading for at least half an hour a day, usually before I went off to sleep, a habit I still keep, to this day. All right, I confess, the first ten or so novels I did read were all Harold Robbins novels. In fact, it gained me some notoriety with the other young men on my course, because as soon as I finished reading one, it was then passed around, but I always was the one who purchased the new ones, so I got to them first. I was still only in my late teens, and I found that I actually liked reading, but what I now wanted was to move out a little from the stereotype that Robbins was known for.

In 1971/72 the crime fiction novels of Arthur W Upfield were translated into one hour episodes for a TV Series, and they made 26 of those Bony novels into a made for TV series. As a ‘Tie In’ with the TV Series, most of those novels were released again, and at the time, I then went out and got hold of around fifteen of those novels. What I did find was that the novels were not really all that close to what the TV Series depicted, as most were brought into the current time setting, as opposed to Upfield starting his written books way back in 1929, and writing the last of them (published after his death) in 1964. I read the novels at that time mainly for the crime fiction aspect of the novels, but there was some things I picked up at later reading that were a revelation, something I did not even see at these first readings. I’ll have a lot more to say about Upfield and these Bony novels in Part Four.

However, what happened now, starting in 1971/72 was that I found I was just flying through those Upfield Bony novels, almost at the rate of one a week and even faster than that, and in fact, that’s probably why I missed those things with his novels that were such a revelation later on. What I found now was that I wanted more out of my reading, and at that time, for me, that meant ‘thick’ books with lots of pages, a little like I remember from the Harold Robbins novels. I would spend anything up to almost an hour once a fortnight in the bookshop in Newcastle where I was now based with the Royal Australian Air Force. I picked up a novel by Irving Wallace, and there were a few of them on the shelf, as he was prolific at the time, and his books were in constant print, and there was a good choice of them to pick from. I even remember the name of that first Wallace novel I did get hold of, The Prize, and it was about the Nobel Prize. It was an immensely satisfying novel to read, and what I did find was that his novels were really well researched. That led me to get another of his novels, and again, I enjoyed it. Thinking that I didn’t want to get too locked into reading similar novels from the one author, I made a conscious decision to try others. The shelves were full of James A Michener novels, but I had an experience earlier in life with a Michener story, which sort of swore me off his writings, and I’ll mention that in depth in Part Four of this Series. I found a novel by John O’Hara, From The Terrace, probably one of the longer books I read around that time. The style was completely different to what I was used to reading, and that was an enjoyable thing of itself. So now I had two authors with a good quantity of books from each to choose from. I also found another author Calder Willingham, and I then got hold of my first novel of his, Providence Island, and that was decidedly ‘racy’ in nature, but besides that, it was also a good read.

Now I found I had three prolific authors who I could go to for good reading when it came to fiction novels, and besides the occasional novel from another author, these three authors became the ones I would go to for my next big read.

At the same time as all of this, I was also reading Science Fiction as well, and again, while there were so many authors of Science Fiction, there was basically only three authors I trusted to write good stories which I would like, and they in fact were the three Masters of Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and EE ‘Doc’ Smith. So interspersed with those thick novels from my fiction authors, I had three SF authors to go to. With Asimov, far and away his best work was that original ‘Foundation’ Series, a Trilogy that was originally published in the SF magazines popular at the time, and then later collated into that three book series of Panther Books, my favourite Publishers at that time, mainly because they had much better cover art work. Some say Bob Heinlein was sometimes more Science Fantasy than flat out Science Fiction, but I really didn’t think that. I read some Science Fantasy, and I just couldn’t get into it as much as with Science Fiction. When It came to Doc Smith, I almost didn’t get into his novels at all. I read this early Skylark series, four novels in all, and I considered them only average, so I wasn’t going to continue with them at all. In the mid 1970s Panther Science Fiction re-released his Classic Lensman series, six novels in all, with the seventh, an earlier novel then shoehorned into that series as the seventh novel. When they were released, it was as that seven book series, all at once. What interested me the most about this series was the cover art work, and that was done by Chris Foss, who I remember from doing the cover art work for Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, really detailed art work as shown in the image below.

Isaac Asimov Foundation Trilogy with cover art work by Chris Foss

I just loved Foss’ artwork, so I bought all seven of those Lensman novels at one time, so I had them all, in case they sold out later and I missed out. I then sourced and ordered a very large folder sized collection of Chris Foss artwork in the form of posters, and while I had to wait for it to come out from the UK, it was well worth waiting for as I now had around 20 of his pieces of Science Fiction art work in the form of large posters. Then there was the surprise of those Lensman novels themselves. When I read the first, that was enough. I was hooked. This Lensman series was just about the best SF I had read. I still have those original seven Lensman novels and the Foundation series on my bookshelf beside me, where I sit, writing this. Over the intervening years since I originally purchased these novels, I have read them a number of times, and I would say there have been two subsequent readings, and each time I have read them, I enjoyed them as much as I did the first time round. I have also had two subsequent readings of Asimov’s original Foundation Series, which won so many awards for SF writing, and for so many years, it was a stand alone trilogy. However, in later years Asimov added two prequels, and two sequels to his original three books. I got hold of each one of them as they appeared on the shelves, but in my opinion, they were nowhere near as good as the original three novels, a personal opinion on my part.

While there are a number of other novels I read, those six authors gave me enough reading material to last quite literally many, many years, and I cannot emphasise the satisfaction I got from nearly every novel I read. I did read other authors, but often, it was never enough to make me want to go back and get hold of another of their novels. Now, while these novels are all one story in the one novel, I was never really one for reading short stories. I really wanted something with some ‘meat’ to it. However, one of those authors did write a lot of short stories, and I ended up reading one of those collected short stories, and found that I actually did enjoy them. That was John O’Hara, and I read four of his books with just collected short stories in them.

There was one novel in all those early years which stood out, and it was not by any of these mentioned authors. That novel was The Fountainhead, written by Ayn Rand. It was without fraction of doubt, the best novel I had ever read, and I enjoyed virtually everything I have ever read. This novel was somehow transcendent, and I felt exhilarated after reading it, and I had never felt like that before, just from reading a novel. I could see that she also wrote a novel titled Atlas Shrugged, and I resolved that one day, I would expend the time, and read what was arguably one of the longest fiction novels written. It took me a further seventeen years to finally find a copy, and read it, and I was not let down at all. There was an odd sensation at times when I finished reading a novel that was decidedly good, and that was most of them. That sensation was really profound when I finished reading this novel. While there was the satisfaction of reading a good novel, there was always a hint of disappointment that the next novel I would read would not be as as good as the one I had just finished. That feeling soon passed, almost within the first few pages of the newer latest novel I got hold of. This was one of the very few novels I then gave to my Mother to read, as I thought that she would also enjoy it. And I was correct.

So here I now had a list of seven authors, and there was always a good cross section of reading for me. In all, I read the following from each Author.

Arthur W Upfield – around 15 Novels, or so (more of them later, as that series made up 29 individual novels about Bony)

Irving Wallace – 12 Novels.

John O’Hara – 9 Novels and 4 compilations of short stories.

Calder Willingham – 8 Novels.

Isaac Asimov – and here, this would be a best guess as he was just so prolific, so it might be anything up to around 35 to 40 or more of his novels, and many of those were collections of his shorter stories.

Robert Heinlein – 25 Novels and also many collections of shorter stories, so the list could be as high as for Isaac Asimov.

EE Doc Smith – around 20 of his novels. (the extras here are his 10 book series about The Family D’Alembert series written by Stephen Goldin, but inspired from an original story by Smith enough to have a co-writing credit on the cover, but these were nowhere near as good as that Lensman Series)

Now, while that number of novels from the three fiction authors might not add up to many books, each one was a thick novel, each more than 500 plus pages.

Early, on, someone once saw all of those novels in my bookshelf, and mentioned that I would have to be a speed reader to have read them all. I thought about that after he mentioned it, and came to the swift realisation that speed reading novels like these would be something I would not even consider, as reading them in ordinary time meant that I could spread out the pleasure that reading gave me over a much longer period.

There’s not one of those authors or his novles that I would fail to recommend to anyone at all.

It was mentioned to me by a couple of friends that reading some novels a number of times across the years would be something they couldn’t do, as they would always know what was coming. I actually thought the same as that, and I was always a little reluctant to do just that, for that same reason. That original Foundation series was the first time I had read a novel for the second time. What I found puzzled me, because even though I had a vague idea of one or two things that happened in the novel, I found that it was in fact like reading the novel for the first time, and that there was nothing that I really did remember from reading them that second, and for some novels, the third time around.

In the next part of this series, I will go into how I drifted away from this constant reading, and then how I came back to it with a passion that has now stayed with me all my life.

Anton Lang uses the screen name of TonyfromOz, and he writes at this site, PA Pundits International on topics related to electrical power generation, from all sources, concentrating mainly on Renewable Power, and how the two most favoured methods of renewable power generation, Wind Power and all versions of Solar Power, fail comprehensively to deliver levels of power required to replace traditional power generation. His Bio is at this link.