What was the first serious novel you read (or were forced to read) as a young person?
Although I read Shakespeare’s MacBeth when I was in the third grade, I was sent home from show-and-tell with a note suggesting that my parents limit my reading to approved third grade texts. My father was a teacher so I suspect he understood the wisdom of this advice but my mother was a book-a-day reader and I imagine she was less enthusiastic about reining in my literary investigations.
So I will accept Robinson Crusoe as the first grown-up book I read (although looking back, it probably was an abridged edition). My uncle Lloyd gave me two books for Christmas that year: the Defoe and a Gunsmoke western thriller that really got my juices going. I vividly remember how my nascent literary mind evoked images of the radio series as I read. Interesting: the radio evoked images that transferred to the book; eventually I suppose the television series dissipated all that imagination and left me with Milburn Stone (a poor substitute for Howard McNear).
Most of us will look back fondly at the fun books they made us read in school: Silas Marner, The Vicar of Wakefield, Julius Caesar, The Return of the Native, The Scarlet Letter, The Old Man and the Sea, The Red Badge of Courage, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm, Jane Eyre, Hamlet. Interestingly, I know many people where the mere mention of Silas Marner elicits deep sounds of regurgitation and distress. Are the books themselves that bad or is it just that they made us read them?
I quite liked Silas Marner but The Scarlet Letter and The Red Badge of Courage were analogous to driving hot spikes under my fingernails.
Probably one of the first big fat examples of serious literature I read was The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (Tom Jones for short). In 1963 I was 16 and there was a great deal of attention being paid to a new movie from England, Tom Jones with Albert Finney. Unfortunately you had to be 17 to get in the theater but being adventurous, my friend Bill and I worked up several ruses to get us into a showing and went down to the State Theater on El Cajon Boulevard. We unhesitatingly walked up to the ticket window and requested two loge tickets, calculating that this demonstrated a more sophisticated and therefore grown-up approach to movie going. We surprisingly went straight in to watch the movie: no one ever questioned us about our age.
I read Fielding immediately after seeing the movie. Not only was it probably the longest book I had read up to that point, it also was the first book I could use when proposing that: “The book was better than the movie!”
Today I notice that Criterion is hosting a collection of movies centered around food and recalling the erotic feast from the movie, Tom Jones was prominently showcased. If you haven’t read the book, do so without delay. And if you haven’t seen the movie, it’s a lot of fun and a very young Albert Finney is a delight.