In the distant days of my childhood, there was nothing remotely resembling the current Covid-19 crisis. I did, however, endure my own little lockdowns, when mumps, measles and other tiresome ailments confined me indoors. In those dismal situations, when I missed my friends, books were my companions.
On one occasion, while I was recovering from a bout of tonsillitis, my mother presented me with Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women. I was not excited. At the age of eleven, I was addicted to Enid Blyton and shunned other authors. I grew to value the novel later when there was an extract from it in my textbook. It described the four sisters of the title, tackling domestic chores in their mother’s absence. I found that episode entertaining and was eager to learn more about Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.
Other fragments of fiction proved equally enticing. Alice’s encounter with the Hatter and March Hare made me wish to get better acquainted with Lewis Carroll’s colourful characters. Empathising with Tom Sawyer’s attempts to evade work, I acquired his Adventures by Mark Twain. I first knew Johanna Spyri’s Heidi as a free-spirited girl in the mountains and went on to see her as a sad somnambulist.
On meeting Gulliver in Lilliput, I tried to follow him elsewhere but gave up midway. I realised that the version of Gulliver’s Travels I was studying at school was an abridged and adapted account of one small section of the imaginary travelogue. It was hard to keep track of Gulliver in the original narrative, as he journeyed from one strange land to another. ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going!’ I did get going, but only when I was pursuing my MA degree in English and could no longer escape Jonathan Swift! If I had watched a film on Gulliver I might have waded through his voyages.
A great many classics were procured despite my protestations. What I wanted were complete sets of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s and those of each mystery series she had written. Instead, I received the works of Daniel Defoe, Jules Verne, Charles Kingsley and Robert Louis Stevenson. They languished — like the hapless renegade of Sir Walter Scott’s patriotic poem — ‘unwept, unhonoured and unsung’.
Not untouched! I spent quality time arranging and rearranging hardbacks and paperbacks on my bookshelf, creating an impressive display. In blatant contravention of a popular proverb, I judged my books by their covers!