Monday, 30 December 2013

Childhood reading, part 4: Information books

Read the previous posts, 1   2    3

My student Zahra who is writing her PhD on children's nonfiction will be happy to hear that I read tons of information books when I was a child. I don't remember ever making a difference.

For instance, I loved a book called True and untrue stories from the forest which, just as the title promises, mixed sentient animals and straightforward nature stories with human protagonists. I liked the former best: the young curious bluetit, the brave little mouse. They were not anthropomorphised apart from having thoughts and perceptions. I remember my mother thought I was too old for the book, but I persisted in re-reading it again and again. Another favourite was Wild Animals I Have Known, by the Canadian Ernst Thompson Seton, over which I cried many desperate nights. They are all about animals hunted down by humans, and it was the first book from which I learned about suffering. I still think it is one of the most piercing books in the world. Today's ecocritics should have it as their bible.

I also loved an obscure book called The Chinese Secret. I don't remember the author, and google only returns business sites from China. I didn't own the book, but my best friend had it, and we read it together at her summer house. Then I borrowed it from her several times to re-read it. Why was it so fascinating? It was a very matter-of-fact story about the Europeans trying to learn the craft of Chinese porcelain.

Another unlikely book I read many times was Fabre's Life of Insects. Who needs adventure and crime when you have the dramas of wasps and ants! Although I also loved another Russian popular science book with a narrative. There is a scientist who invents a liquid that can shrink animals and people. Two children drink the liquid by mistake and are carried away by a dragonfly so the professor has to shrink himself too, to search for them. High-pace adventure, miniature perspective again, and tons of valuable knowledge. All I know about biology is from this book and from Fabre. A bit outdated perhaps, but more than I remember from school.

I also liked books in which children travelled to lands of numbers or musical instruments – Russian equivalents of The Phantom Tollbooth. I loved fiction stories set in Ancient Egypt, written for children by the most eminent Russian egyptologist. I loved her books so much that I wrote her a letter, and she replied! I loved a fictionalised biography of Cervantes. Why would a Russian writer write a biography of Cervantes for children? I knew it was a biography of a real person, but it was just like any adventure story. I am not sure how much of it was true. Of all world's authors of all times, I know most about Cervantes.

But there was one science book that always occupied the central place in my heart, Camille Flammarion's Popular astronomy from 1880. I was passionate about astronomy (still am) and read everything I could get hold of. Of course there were more recent and accurate books, but I didn't care. I didn't know it was an old book. I did notice that Pluto was missing and that Jupiter only had four moons, but it did not bother me. Everything I ever needed to know about astronomy but was too afraid to ask was in Flammarion. I wonder at what point in my repeated upheavals the book got lost. I would have kept for sentimental reasons.

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