I’ve tried to make this column about more or less age-appropriate books; but the truth is I’m a big hypocrite. Yes, I started out reading the same kinds of books most toddlers do – the kind of books where there’s a cat, and a mat, and then the cat sits on the mat. But, as soon as I could, I moved on to books that were distinctly too complex for me, starting with Tolkien’s series, The Lord of the Rings. By the time I was 10, I had read a number of ‘grown-up’ writers including Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, P G Wodehouse, Alistair Maclean, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and more.
I don’t mention these names to show off – Alistair Maclean, for instance, is nothing to show off about, and I had only read Dickens’ earlier, ‘easier’ books, such as Nicholas Nickelby. But if you look at that list, you’ll notice that it’s pretty broad, including classics, mystery novels, fantasy, science fiction and adventure.
You’ll also notice that most of these are older writers; I was a young boy in the 1980s and I was mainly reading things that had been written between the 1890s and 1960s.
Part of the reason is that books just took longer to reach India back then, so I had no choice but to dip into older options.
Also, the children’s book scene back then wasn’t quite as diverse and exciting as it is now. For more age-appropriate reading I could – and did – dip into mystery series featuring juvenile sleuths like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and my favourites, the Three Investigators. There was always a lot of Enid Blyton, and thankfully Roald Dahl and the William books by Richmal Crompton as well.
This mix of children’s fiction and a variety of genres of grown-up fiction taught me a lot of things. It taught me that the divisions between books for children and adults isn’t water-tight.
Leaving aside books with inappropriate or obscene subject matter, most books for grown-ups only differ in matters of vocabulary and a certain emotional and intellectual depth. Then again, I’ve read books for children, such as Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, that have more depth and better language usage than the average airport thriller by the likes of Mathew Reilly or Dan Brown.
I also learned that I could gain something from any kind of book, whether it was a cozy mystery novel, a galaxy-spanning science fiction epic, a realistic tale of life in a small town or a renowned classic that attempted to present a serious picture of the society of its times.
In the process, I also found that I had acquired a fairly broad body of knowledge, mostly trivia, but some grounding in geography, history and world cultures too, because each book is like a window into a different time and place.
Even the purely imaginary books showed me how people from different places imagined the future, or places that never were.
I learned not to be a snob, someone who turned his nose up at a book just because it had rocket ships or dragons or cowboys in it. I also learned to be a demanding writer, to expect each book to be written and plotted and imagined as well as it deserved and as well as the writer could manage.
I also learned that a lot of the divisions we impose on literature are imaginary at a basic level.
Because all these books had one thing in common: they contained stories.
And leaving aside questions of age, complexity, style and genre, every one of us enjoys stories and is qualified to decide whether a story is good or bad, whether we liked it or not, whether it moved us, or spoke to us, or taught us, or just amused us, or not.
These are all things I learned by reading above my head. Because the world of books isn’t a lot of different rooms sealed off each other; it’s a vast, open library that we can all wander through freely, with a little common sense and a lot of wonder.
So talk to your librarian or your parents and take a chance on something that’s a little above your head. You’ll be glad you did.