"This was the great discovery: that books could let you in to places of danger. Perhaps inevitably this included places you regretted having gone"
It was William Golding who jolted me out of the years of safety. My older brother had been reading Lord of the Flies at school, and it clearly made enough of an impression on him that I knew I had to get hold of his copy.
Who knows exactly what age is right to read certain books? And what parent has worked out how to stop a child reading a book on which they want to get their hands? In any case, after almost three decades I can still recall the feeling of utter desolation. A book that started off so familiarly — wreck, desert island, no adults — should not have gone like this. In particular, it was not meant to end like this. Worse was that although I had hardly seen anything of the world, the book seemed somehow accurate, saying something I must have already feared about cruelty, evil and the possible absence of cosmic justice.
I felt numb for days. Yet along with the numbness certain emotions were almost unbearably heightened. I remember almost intolerable surges of empathy and pity for people plus a desperate desire to befriend almost everyone. It wore off, of course, but for a period I lived with the sense I would meet later in Philip Larkin when he described the aftermath of his mower meeting that hedgehog:
We should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
From that first Golding I was away. Prose was followed by poetry, and the sense that books could hurtle you out of the world you knew became one of their major attractions. Books, which had once been “safe”, had now revealed themselves to be almost uniquely dangerous, world-altering things. Like any precocious child I tried out works I could not possibly have understood. Soon I was in the habit of always having a paperback at the ready in my blazer pocket. And though it doubtless seemed swottish, when friends heard that these things could open up worlds they had no chance of getting near in real life they too developed a certain respect for them, even if they didn’t acquire the habit.
By my early teens I was careering along the path of books, dependant in those days on what could be found in school and public libraries. I stalled on some of Aldous Huxley’s Twenties novels, but others of his landed. The Doors of Perception — that work so revered by Sixties stoners — seemed like a portal within a portal, and with some considerable danger attached. I suppose it didn’t hurt when one aspiringly cool schoolfellow inquired about this particular book and reacted with solemn respect.
But this was the great discovery: that books could let you in to places of danger. Perhaps inevitably this included places you regretted having gone. For a while I have kept a mental list of those books that I wish I could unread or unlearn. Which is not the same list as books on which I wasted my time, but rather to do with books so flooring that even as an adult they can produce the feeling I first got as a child with Golding.
Of course, the ability to be shocked declines with experience in reading, as in life. But there are still some books which are so devastating that the results seem physical, including sometimes nauseating. I see from the date I put in the front of each book I read that I first read A Handful of Dust the year I left school. What many people remember most about Evelyn Waugh’s bitterest novel is the moment when Brenda Last confuses the news about her son as being about her lover of the same name. Which is certainly a magnificently misanthropic Waughian strike. But for me it was the ending. Perhaps it is a certain type of English fear, but that fate of Tony Last — stuck in the jungle, reading Dickens aloud for the rest of his life — was so precise that I wanted to shout with rage. I immediately wished I could unread a book which had imagined such a careful form of torture and deployed it with such sadistic precision.
One other novel, read a year afterwards, that has had precisely the same effect was a later work of English fiction. At the end of school some friends and I had raced through Ian McEwan, both enjoying and being baffled by his perversity. But I read The Comfort of Strangers later and alone. The book is a compact description of a happy young couple who go to Venice, where they meet a rich man who befriends them and then kills them. If you have not read it I have not spoiled the book — I have saved you from it. I went around almost gasping after finishing it. Why? Why would anybody write a book so cruel and bleak? Some books have the effect of a smack across the face. Which can be energising at times. But sometimes it is a smack you wish you had anticipated, and ducked.