When I was a child in grade school (known to some as primary school), I had already started out with the reading habits I have today, reading anything and everything I could get my hands on that interested me. My interests were more shapeless and inchoate then, because even with all the reading I did, I hadn’t yet narrowed things down to simple preferences. I had interests (monsters, ghosts, dinosaurs, love stories, folk and fairy tales, tales of heroes and heroines, things rather in the fantastic line than not). Those early years were the years which saw the creation of that great masterpiece “Vicki and the Spider” by my friend David D., a story in which I fell into a giant pit and was eaten by an equally giant spider, a masterpiece made of sheets of that giant paper teachers used to give us to write on with our giant pencils (no wonder the spider was so big, everything in our world except us was big in those days!). This scurrilous publication of course called for retaliation, but I took the high road and gave my friend David a nobler foe than a creepy old spider in my follow up short “novel” “David and the Lion.” The literary gods were clearly pleased with me, for after David D. moved away to another part of the country, they continued to inspire me to read and to write, and led me to some of my favorite books earlier than was suggested for my age range.
First there were the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, then some secretary who solved crimes whose name I no longer remember, but whose titles always featured color names, such as “Murder in Maroon,” and so forth and so on. Then, there was the terrifying short story which I’ll swear also had the name “The Woman in White,” but which unlike Wilkie Collins’s novel of that name featured a jealous and vindictive wraith of a first wife who stalked a betrothed man with a bread knife and at one point visited him in a dream, trying to slice him in half. Though he doubted the veracity of the dream the next morning when he first awoke, when he looked down, half of his mattress was cut in ribbons!
One of my earliest memories was of my first fantasy/science fiction novel, however. It was a dinosaur story which had far more of fantasy than science about it, and was read in the days when my friend David was still around with his brotherly recommendations about what to read. There was nothing cute and cuddly about these dinosaurs, no “The Land That Time Forgot” about any of them. They were fearsome and toothy and nearly inescapable except for those very accustomed to surviving with them–and here’s where the Jurassic Park element comes into play: where, in what space and time, is it likely that humans and dinosaurs would ever interact? Just as in “Jurassic Park,” in this book, whatever its obviously forgettable title was, the anachronism was alive and well, and events conspired to make the book exciting if totally inaccurate.
When I refer to anachronisms, I’m not referring to the part of the book in which two boys, friends, go to a mysterious carnival/state fair where they visit the booth of some piece of machinery like Zoltan the Fortune-teller, who predicts an adventure (or was it an actual human fortune-teller? I’ve forgotten). Nor am I referring to the fateful tent they enter which is full of dinosaur bones and skeletons. Nor am I referring to whatever happens to them to throw them back into the past, into a dinosaur-filled realm in the world, where all around them the world is a constant menace and a threat. What I am referring to by anachronism is the fact that in this world (as happens by scientific accident in “Jurassic Park”) there are real, live humans alive at the same time as the dinosaurs, picking their way carefully in the giant footsteps of their monster-like neighbors! The only other fiction I’d ever seen at the time in which a dinosaur was alive at the same time as humans was the cartoon “The Flintstones” on television, in which a very tame and dog-like dinosaur was the family pet, and there were a few other dinosaurs scattered in the storyline here and there, all geared to (human) domestic purposes. By contrast, this book about the two boys and the dinosaur-age boy they learn to communicate with was thrilling! What excitement! What chills as they barely escaped the vicious monsters time after time! What a life-like picture (I thought in my small person’s head) of a village of stone age (?) people forced to live alongside forces and beings constantly trying to eradicate or simply to eat them! This was the life! This was camping out! This was reading!
Inevitably, of course, the two boys fall asleep or faint in the past, or get hit over the head, or something along those lines, just as they are about to be eaten. They wake up again in the dinosaur bones tent, or at Zoltan’s booth, somewhere which of course makes them half doubt their big adventure (though it’s at least a minor sort of adventure in adult terms for even two very emotionally connected individuals to go through a sort of folie à deux experience in this way). And the book is over. And within a short amount of time, David D. moved away, and before the year was out, we studied dinosaurs, and a teacher concerned to keep us from nightmares and to provide us with the truth as was her duty and prerogative informed us that in fact dinosaurs and humans had never inhabited earth at the same time, far from it! I promptly lost my interest in dinosaurs and started to think more about ghosts and monsters, things which were in my dreams often enough and could lurk helpfully in the shadows until teachers were otherwise occupied, and which were murky enough to exist in the miasma of a young reader’s mind, however much adults might deny them.
Though I can’t blame my entire lack of interest in science that isn’t carefully explained in detail which makes it alive for a non-specialist on this early disillusionment about dinosaurs and humans, who knows but that I might be scraping down the sides of an early human encampment with a trowel and saving crockery specimens with the best of them had the threat of meeting up with dinosaur bones in the same burial plot been possible there? What about you? What are the most memorable reading experiences of your early childhood, and how do you feel they shaped your later reading self, career, or intelligence? My comment pages are always open!