Note: This post constitutes the 20th in a series of Friday Forgotten Books, this time in the form of a brief memoir about discovering books. For more Friday Forgotten Books, see Patti Abbott’s blog.
There are few things more pleasing to readers than the discovery of a new-to-them author or book that really clicks with their tastes and preferences in reading, whatever those tastes might be. I call those Joy of Discovery moments, and I’ve had many over the years. I suppose you could say that almost all of my reading has resulted from such occurrences.
Certainly, the earliest of these wasn’t made by me but was instead a result of selections made by my parents. The beloved children’s books from my now-distant youth were selected by them: Winnie the Pooh, Millions of Cats and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, to name just three very early childhood favorites, were in the house and often read to me, as they had been to my older brother.
But early on, often it was the books I somehow discovered for myself that made a difference. My reading skills were weak until I found things I really wanted to read, and that surely wasn’t the adventures of Dick, Jane, Spot and Fluffy. It was The Hardy Boys books, the Chip Hilton Boy’s sports series (here), Tom Swift Jr. and especially the Winston Science Fiction series (covers and endpaper art here) that really got me reading. The Hardy Boys got me reading mystery fiction, and though I set that genre aside for many years I did come back to it, as a result of one of those discoveries mentioned above. The Winston books were real science fiction, by authors who wrote for both youth and adult audiences, and that led to my life-long love of the genre, which I still read avidly. I don’t remember how I discovered the Winston books, but I’m pretty sure it was because my brother had read them, and they were available in the local library, an important consideration.
Okay, enough ancient history, let’s get on to some of those discoveries, shall we? I’ll start with something I’ve mentioned in passing several times in posts and reviews: Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Street and Smith published this one, and John W. Campbell edited it during the time I was reading it. My brother (yes, him again) had a subscription, and the issues were kept, carefully and in good condition, in his room. At some point either he allowed me to read them or I did it surreptitiously. Whichever, what is important here is that there were great covers, really good stories and the interior illustrations added a huge amount to the experience. The novelettes serialized over three months kept me going to the next issue, as if I needed any prompting! That’s where my love of the work of Kelly Freas originated. I guess, though there are many really top SF interior illustrators out there, he remains my favorite.
Inevitably, those issues of Astounding –later Analog – led me to the paperback racks, first in the local Woolworths, then in an actual bookstore, where a combination of cover art and author name I recognized from the magazines (I’d also begun reading Galaxy by this time) informed my purchases, and some of those books were more happy discoveries: Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Leinster, Anderson, Clement, A.E. Van Vogt. I still read those authors – occasionally – today.
So I happily read SF for years, and in the process of visiting the book store, I came across something else new: fantasy. Thinking back (foggily at this distance) it was probably Fritz Leiber who got me started with the 1970 collection of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, Swords and Deviltry. I went on to read them all. I still love them. Fun, atmospheric, clever, not taking themselves too seriously but providing great adventure and fun, I ate them up. Wonderful! After that start, a lot of the fantasy available was a little hard to swallow. The Castle of Otranto and The Worm Ouroboros and their like such were not so much fun. Of course there was that fellow Howard and his character Conan, that was good stuff.
But then I came across an English writer who’d done something darn good, a fellow named Tolkien. Now there’s a gigantic “joy of discovery” moment, and once again I have my older brother to thank for it. He read the books, he said they were good. I heard a little more and went out and bought copies in a small book store – now long gone – in Laguna Beach, CA. I took them home and read them. Wow! Author/book discoveries like that just don’t come often enough in life.
Remember there was no Jordon, Eddings, R.R. Martin, and all the others at that time. Tolkien was the ne plus ultra. Many believe he still is, and I may be among them, but that’s not the point.
I hear you asking “how about that happy discovery of mystery fiction you mentioned earlier?”. Well, I was just getting to it.
I’d read and really liked Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. I had many friends who were avid fans of the mystery genre and often suggested other authors and books to me, but I had a couple of lukewarm contacts with the stuff and had decided to stick with rockets and elves, swords and sorcery, gravity wells and magic, thanks very much. Then on a trip to the mountains four of us got snowed in. I’d finished the book I’d brought with me, and began looking for something else to read. All I could find was an Agatha Christie novel featuring some guy named Hercule Poirot.
Joy of Discovery moment! It could have been the snowy weather outside, the company in the house or the mood I was in, but that day, that book was just right. I loved it, and it wasn’t long before I’d purchased a few large handfuls of Christie paperbacks, a reader’s guide to the Poirot novels, and was on the way to reading all of them. I even branched out and tried a few of the Miss Marple books, but preferred Poirot.
That led to other similar authors, from Allingham to Arthur Upfield. So much to read, suddenly, in the genre, and I was still reading SF and Fantasy. I was already well on the way to having more books than time, and eventually more books than space, or – perhaps – even common sense.
Then a friend of mine told me about a book I just HAD to try. An absolute must, he said, even if I did usually read Christie, et al. It had an odd title, but I got a copy and read it, while on vacation, lying on a beach in Mexico, as a mater of fact. The title? The Simple Art of Murder. with that great Tom Adams cover. (For more of the great covers painted by Adams, see here)
The ground shook, the sky cracked open, I had a Joy of Discovery moment unlike any other since Tolkien. Raymond Chandler’s writing and plots hit me like an exploding light bulb. I bought and read every Chandler short story I could lay hands on. When those were gone, I went looking for the novels.
That led to Dashiell Hammett and all the other past and current hard-boiled writers around. Poirot stood unnoticed in the shadows for a long time, and hard-boiled is still my preference in mystery fiction, or “crime fiction” if you prefer. Give me a P.I. on a case and most of the time (level of writing allowing)I’m a happy reader.
Not that I’ve forsaken SF and Fantasy, and there continue to be Joy of Discovery moments in those genres: last year – or was it in 2008? – John Scalzi, late last year it was Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Jay Lake. Most recently it’s the hard SF Sector General series by James White. I could go on and on, but I hear you thinking “You’ve gone on long enough!” and you’re probably right.
So I’ll end here. Happy reading to you all, and may you have Joy of Discovery moments soon and often!