Books of my callow youth

Just trying to think back to my elementary school days. (This being so early and in Finland, all the books referred below were translations to Finnish.)

Little House on the Prairie, and the other Laura Ingalls books — read most of them except, oh the anger and the gnashing of teeth, one that the town library just didn’t have. Much discomfort followed before I leaped over that one, feeling guilty and slightly dirty. (To this day it feels like a minor crime to read a book series out of chronological order.)

Nancy Drew — Oh, blush. Read dozens of these. I have no idea if Nancy Drews are supposed to be reading for girls only; I didn’t care then, and after a certain touchy middle phase I’m now back in the land of not caring a whit for target audiences as long as what I read entertains me. As I recall them, the Nancy Drew adventures were pretty entertaining. Except that one time when there were four hours until the library-o-mobile would swing by, and I had a Drew to finish. A lesson learned early: there are bad ideas, there are disasters, and then there’s rushing a book. (A later philosophical addition: If you’re reading for pleasure, you’re really doing it wrong if you have to stress over it!)

Jules Verne — Read a lot of these; beautiful Finnish translations. (I’ve heard Verne has been badly served by clueless translations from the original French to English; that’s what I’ve heard.)

It’s funny how, when you’re young, you don’t notice some things. My theory is that when you’re young, you just don’t know enough to know how alien some things are supposed to be. Thus you just don’t notice whether a book is a hundred years old or written yesterday, or happens in the 1990s or the 1890s, unless it comes right out and slams your face in it. How’re you to know there’s no Wild West no more out there somewhere? If I wanted a hokey aphorism I could say that to an ignorant child there is no Time, but plenty of Place — and one place was somewhere behind Apollo, when there was a big plan for shooting people at the Moon with a cannon, or a steam elephant trudging through India. There was no Time, only Place, and that place was Away, and it started farther from your home door than you had ever went or could imagine going, c. 100 km or so it seemed. (Also: entirely too many capital-letter words.)

Possibly related: When you don’t know much about history, your ideas of where certain historical bits are tend to be a bit vague because you don’t have anything to anchor them with. Say the supposed deeds of Robin Hood — I’d guess most people would reason they’re medieval, and thus ah um erm somewhere between, like, 400 and 1400 maybe? I, however, having carefully chosen this example, can bump the Hood into place by remembering he was a supposed contemporary of Richard the Lion-Hearted, who was only a few generations after Hastings, which was 1066. That alone gives you an absolute lower limit for the date.

And the more you learn about history, the more you fill in the misty and empty spots, and get something that’s continuous and not a collection of vague glimpses: a view of history where there’s stuff happening everywhere all the time. (And it’s a really nice warm fuzzy feeling when you see how the pieces fit together.)

Three Investigators — Published under the brand of Alfred Hitchcock. Good stuff except for the creeping suspicion that Mr. Hitchcock just maybe wasn’t writing the books himself, with the peculiar arrangements of the covers and all, and surely such a thing was wrong. (At least I wasn’t energetic enough to start acting on my instinct that surely someone had to be told about this…)

Enid Blyton — Oh dear heavens. You could crush very small cars with the amount of Blyton I read. Some three or four times. And… well, I don’t think there’s a better definition of bliss than being twelve or so and deep in one of the Adventure series books.

Zorro — Probably were very formulaic adventure books; but I read them, oh I did. Come to think of it, I didn’t read Batman or Superman comics when young (no, I was a Marvel fanboy, and that was later), but what’s Zorro except a Batman of the past?

The Zorro books were a bit different since they weren’t from the town library but from the one my very rural elementary school had. That school library was just a big bookshelf-cabinet with a door and a lock: if any schoolchild wanted to borrow a book a teacher and some desultory scratching of who-loaned-what was necessary.

Come to think of it, this was in the nineties, but the books I remember from the school library were much older — seventies, sixties, older even; the relic that the Ministry of Education Guidelines forgot. For some reason I was very good in slipping into “ancient entertainments” like these.

Not that that stopped me from loaning a few automobile magazines from the library-o-mobile because all the other boys loaned them too; I leafed through them, couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about — or why there was something so mystically interesting in that bikini lady draped over the hood of that particular vehicle — and I returned them and forgot about that particular status symbol.

Then, some vague number of years later, there was this collective sigh that meant, “Oh, so that’s what that was all about!”

It’s funny that the series above all added together must come to a horrendous lot of books I’ve read, but for the most part I have no memory at all of what they contained. Plots, characters, striking scenes — all gone.

Makes me wonder if there would be shivers of recognition if I picked up one of the old ones.

Also makes me wonder why I can’t recall any Finnish books similar to those above that I read. (Well, there was one book from the school library that was a boys’ adventure from the thirties or something. All I can remember about it was that it was somehow weirdly restrained and felt like it assumed I knew or felt some big patriotic detail I really didn’t.)

I have a sneaking suspicion that my lack of Finnish input was, firstly, a question of volume: even including the cost of translation, there just are immensely more books in the Anglophone sphere than in the, er, the Fennophone one. And secondly, because most of the Finnish books available were eighties and nineties style and fashion, which I didn’t much like; the past and other wildly alien and romantic places were much better than photocopies of the grubby reality of the half-familiar present. (Really; the Finnish youth fare of the time — and of today, I suppose — seems to be for city kids, and to a country bumpkin like me that was the worst possible combination of familiar and alien.)

Besides, who wants to read about bullies and the dangers of drugs when you can have Diego de la Vega put on his mask and strike terror into the hearts of clumsy evildoers, or foil nefarious adults in a far-off valley because oops you snuck into the wrong plane with your posse of friends, or struggle with maple syrup, farming and harsh wild nature in some other corner of the endless disconnected Away?

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