John Updike on Childhood Reading

         My reading as a child was lazy and cowardly, and it is yet. I was afraid of encountering, in a book, something I didn’t want to know. Perhaps my earliest literary memory is my fear of the spidery, shadowy, monstrous illustrations in a large de luxe edition of “Alice in Wonderland” that we owned. A little later, I recall being appalled, to the point of tears, by a children’s version of the Peer Gynt legend in an infernal set of volumes we owned called “The Book House.” I also remember, from the same set, a similar impression of pain, futility and crabbed antiquity conveyed by an account of Shelley’s boyhood. I read both these things when I was sick in bed, a customarily cheerful time for me.

Still later, in the fifth or sixth grade, I was enticed into reading, for my own good, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The adventure in the cave gave me lasting claustrophobia and a dread of Twain, besides whom Poe and Melville seem good-humored optimists. O. Henry was the only recommended author unreal enough for me to read with pleasure. Having deduced that “good” books depict a world in which horror may intrude, I read through all my adolescence for escape.

I always begin the fall term with meditations on the immersive pleasures of reading, and it is not until the second week that I begin talking about what Anita Brookner calls, in A Start in Life, a life ruined by literature (“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.”) Well, not really ruined in Updike’s case, but we often forget the variation in appetites when it comes to childhood readers.  Some embrace fright, and others, like Updike, back off and escape into other opportunities to encounter possibilities, along with perils of a lesser magnitude than what is found in Alice (see Tenniel’s illustration for the pool of tears below).  The trick is to match up child readers with books they will love, and the librarian at my local public library was a genius at that.