BY mother and stepfather were not great readers, and books were a scarce commodity in my life until I was about 12. In those lonely childhood years, I was to discover that books could be good friends, steadfast and reliable, and I seized upon almost any printed matter that came my way, whether it was a girls' classic like "Little Women," or a True Detective magazine, or Edgar Allan Poe, or "Insect Life in Mozambique."
Fifty years on, my reading habits are still as wide-ranging and omnivorous.
But I think it all began in that forest rest house in the Siwalik Hills, a subtropical range cradling the Doon Valley in northern India. Here my stepfather and gun-toting friends were given to hunting the wild animals that still roamed those forests. He was a poor shot, so he cannot really be blamed for the absence of wildlife today; but he did his best to shoot down everything in sight!
On one of these "shikar" trips, we were staying in a rest house near the Timli Pass. My stepfather and his friends were "after tiger," and set out every morning with an army of villagers to "beat" the jungle, in order to drive the tiger out into the open. Never excited by this form of sport, I stayed behind in the rest house, fully expecting complete boredom for the duration of our stay. Exploring the old rest house, I discovered that one of the rooms was furnished with a dusty bookshelf, stacked high wi th books that hadn't been touched for years.
It was here that I discovered "Three Men in a Boat," by Jerome K. Jerome, which I finished reading that same day. The next day I read most of the stories in M. R. James's "Ghost Stories of an Antiquary." On the third day, while the sportsmen were still looking for their tiger, I chuckled over my first Wodehouse ("Love Among the Chickens"), sampled O. Henry, and started on "David Copperfield." Camp broke up before I could get through "Copperfield," but the forest ranger said I could keep it, which I did, thus becoming the only person with a trophy to show for the hunt, the clever tiger having proved elusive.
After that adventure, I was always looking for books in unlikely places; and I had a knack of finding them, too.
A couple of years ago, I was rummaging through some discarded books at a school jumble sale, when I found a first edition of "Three Men in a Boat." As this book had been one of my first loves, I felt that my reading adventures had come full cycle. When I think of all the great books I have read over the years, I realize that they have more than made up for the disappointments that sometimes came my way, and that I am indeed a fortunate man. I am sure that other compulsive readers feel the same way.
Although I never went to college, I think I have read as much, if not more, than most college men, so that it would be true to say that I received my education in second-hand bookshops. London had many, and Calcutta once had a number of them, but I think the prize must go to a small town in Wales called Hay-on-Wye, which has 26 bookshops and over 1 million books. It's in the world's quieter corners that book lovers still flourish as a race.
Unlikely, out-of-the-way places often yield up treasures - like the trunkful thrown out of a hotel storeroom, providing me with "The Complete Plays of J. M. Barrie." Am I the only person around who still reads Barrie? His occasional sentimentality is a sin in the eyes of modern critics, but I must confess to an unabashed enjoyment of plays such as "Mary Rose," "Dear Brutus," "A Kiss For Cinderella," and, of course, "Peter Pan."
I love discovering forgotten or neglected gems which I feel deserve to be read again. One of them was an exquisite essay by the Boston writer, Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920), called "The Precept of Peace," which appeared in her book "Patrins" (1897). A lovely and profound piece of writing, it is typical of the humorous tranquillity with which she faced the failure (financially speaking) of all her books.
Another gem, "Sweet Rocket" (1920), by Mary Johnston, was also a financial failure. It had only the thinnest outline of a story, but she set out her ideas in lyrical prose that seduces the sympathetic reader at every turn of the page. Miss Johnston was a Virginian. She did not travel outside America. But her little book did. I found it buried under a pile of railway timetables at a railway bookstall in Simla, the old summer capital of India - almost as though it had been waiting there for me, these 70 ye ars!