I was helping to tidy up Holly’s room today (which takes all day with teddies, books, and all sorts of bizarre things hidden in nooks and crannies) and one of the jobs was to move a bookcase across the room. It was too heavy to move with all the books in it so I took them out and then re-shelved them later. I realised while I was doing this that, while I am not exactly OCD tidy about most things I am really neurotic about how I shelve books. Is anyone else like this or is it me? I can’t bear it if the spines are way out of alignment, although there is a reason behind this – sometimes this hides other books so you can’t see the titles clearly enough. Then I started trying to put them in according to author and debating which authors should go well together. I really ought to get myself a job in a library. I’d love my own bookshop but that’s a far-off dream I’m afraid…
A guilt read
Anyway, while I was digging through the piles of titles, I came across Swallows and Amazons. As a family we had tried to read this book together fairly recently but it’s fallen by the wayside. It was one that I felt I ought to have read as a child but never came across and so when I found a copy in a charity shop I bought it so Holly and I could share it together. (In fact I bought two copies, so keen – and forgetful – was I.)
Image courtesy of amazon.co.uk
For those of you unfamiliar with the novel, it’s about a group of children who go off in a boat to camp on a little island on a lake in the Lake District. During their stay they meet a couple of girls who are also spending the summer sailing around the lake and start friendly war, with them the Swallows and the girls the Amazons.
Arthur Ransome does go into tremendous (and in my opinion unnecessary) detail about the various parts of boats, to the point where you feel like you’re reading a yachting manual instead of a children’s book. There are pages upon pages of descriptions and it’s so convoluted at times that I feel I need a specialist sailing manual to understand what he’s talking about. The children do have little adventures which are more interesting but there’s not the conversational tone of other books that are similar in vein. It’s all quite dry. There aren’t even any scrummy meals to be salivated over – all you get is a mention of pemmican and a boiled egg.
We trudged through the book for a couple of weeks, but as I read to Holly her mind wasn’t on it. She’d be rearranging pillows, or plaiting her hair or would suddenly start talking about something totally unrelated. I asked her if she wanted to move on to something else (I was secretly begging her to do so) but she rather indignantly replied that she wanted to stick with the story, thank you very much. My heart sank and I continued reading about cleats and booms and keels and halyards.
But suddenly requests to re-read old picture books became increasingly common, and then when her library reservation for a new Benedict Society novel came through, she leapt on that eagerly. Swallows and Amazons has therefore sunk unceremoniously to the bottom of the reading pile.
Since it is a classic, I feel like I should have enjoyed it – that I am some sort of literary philistine for not devouring it. I feel guilty for admitting that I found it tedious and long-winded and just not very good. Am I alone in this? Do any of you feel this way about other books? Do you feel you ought to at least finish a classic even if you’re struggling? Or that you ought to make an effort to like one when you just want to move on to the next – to any other – book?
I am a great fan of Daniel Pennac – a French writer and educationalist – who wrote the amazing The Rights of the Reader (which deserves a post of its own some time in the near future).
In this book, Pennac argues that readers have rights and one of them is not to finish a book they don’t like. Another is not to have to like anything because they are supposed to. I adhere to this, and share these views with the children I work with, so maybe I should heed my own advice and just get over my dislike of Swallows and Amazons. Before I start boring you all with the details!