8 NOVEMBER 2008, Page 43

Turning back the pages

Juliet Townsend

MAGIC MoMENTS: THE BooKS THE Boy LoVED AND MUCH ELSE BESIDES by John Sutherland Profile, £10.99, pp. 273, ISBN 9781846680786 ✆ £8.79 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 CURIoSITIES oF LITERATURE: A BooK-LoVER’S ANTHoLoGy oF LITERARy ERUDITIoN by John Sutherland Random House, £12.99, pp. 290, ISBN 9781905211975 ✆ £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 John Sutherland’s life has been devoted to the enjoyment of books and the passing on of that enjoyment to others, whether through his columns in the Guardian and Financial Times or through his teaching to the literature students at UCL, or the rather less bookish science buffs at the California Institute of Technology. It is hard to imagine anyone better suited to bringing the pleasures of reading to those for whom it has never been an important part of life. His quirky, amused and tolerant eye roams freely over the whole field of books, finding something to attract and entertain in the most unexpected places.

His two new publications illustrate this from different angles. In Magic Moments he looks back to his early years and some of the key events with books, music and film which seized his imagination for better or worse, and changed the way he saw the world. The childhood section is particularly evocative for anyone brought up in a household of boys in the Forties and Fifties. Tarzan reigned supreme, although for the five-year-old John Sutherland he was not the Lord Greystoke of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books but the hero of Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, Johnny Weissmuller, with arms and legs of simian hairiness and a torso suspiciously smooth as a baby’s bot tom. Other heroes of the author’s early days included the Amazing Wilson, the barefoot athlete whose deeds of derring do appeared weekly in the Wizard — ranging from effortlessly running a three-minute mile and smashing the long jump and high jump world records, to beating Hillary and Tenzing to the summit of Everest.

Sutherland also enjoyed my own favourite comic, Champion, with such sterling heroes as Rockfist Rogan and Ginger Nutt, the Boy who Takes the Biscuit. His point is that for many lucky children the keen pleasure of entering an imaginary world, whether through books, comics or films, is an immeasurably precious thing. He describes how

between the ages of 10 and 13, bookish children can be observed experiencing reading rages. They grind their eyes and push their noses savagely against the page. They hoover up, obsessively, everything by their favourite authors .... they slow their furious pace down as they near the end, so as to savour the last, delicious drops of narrative. At no stage in life is reading more intense.

It also tends to be adventurous, if no one has pointed out to the child the difference between a book intended for an adult or juvenile audience. I recently found a list of all the books I read in a year, aged 12. I was amazed, not only by the quantity — almost one a day — but also by the indiscriminate variety. All was grist that came to my mill. My embarrassingly pretentious comments made no real distinction between Dimsie among the Prefects, Eminent Victorians, Bulldog Drummond and the Book of Job (I was doggedly wading my way through the Bible at the time.) All received the accolade of a star for ‘an excellent read’. I suspect that I am not alone in having considerably narrowed my intake in more recent years.

John Sutherland, however, does not seem to have done so, graduating from the Amazing Wilson through the furtive teenage pleasures of The Cruel Sea, Lady Chatterley and A Room at the Top, to arrive at the age of 20 in the calmer waters of Trollope’s The Claverings, exploring on the way some unsatisfactory byways, not least Mein Kampf, which he found unexpectedly difficult to obtain during his National Service in post-war Germany.

There must have been as many of them in the years of the Third Reich as there are Gideon Bibles in motel America. Where ... had all these millions of books gone? ... Was there a gigantic, foul-smelling landfill somewhere, like the pits where they throw and burn carcasses during a foot and mouth epidemic?

When he eventually tracked down a copy it proved a sad disappointment, turning out to be ‘an absolute dud’, and ‘in sad need of a sub-editor’, though he concedes that this might have proved a hazardous job.

The second book, the fruits of a lifetime’s voracious reading, is well described by its title, Curiosities of Literature. In fact it becomes curiouser and curiouser, as one wends one’s way pleasurably down one twisting literary path after another. Did you know that without Bulwer-Lytton we would never have heard of Bovril, or that Thackeray could inscribe the Lord’s Prayer on a dry cherry pip, or that the original title of Gone With the Wind was Tote the Weary Load? The scope and detail of Sutherland’s knowledge is enviable. But the important thing is that he wears it lightly and uses it to entice us to join him in appreciating that books are not only absorbing and rewarding but also tremendous fun. This anthology would make an excellent present — why not stock up with a few copies for Christmas? q The discount offers on books in this section remain open for three months from date of publication. Email: taggings@bertrams.com