I think the very first thing I saw in this world must have been ‘The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories’, which my mother was reading around the time of my birth (not during, mind you). The book features prominently in the first photo of me ever taken. It was a curious choice for hospital reading, but one in-keeping with her particular variety of maternal sentiment. She did not have children to coddle or cuddle, but to introduce us to the various wonders of the world and the joys of discovery.
The city of Oxford has afforded many of these joys. When I was six, my mother took me out of school for a month to travel around England. Before our trip, she had read me ‘Brideshead Revisited’ by way of a bedtime story. When we reached Oxford I stood on Broad Street, before the blue gates of Trinity College, and declared that I would go to Oxford when I was old (as college-age seemed at the time). We returned to the city when I was eight, and again when I was fifteen, and my intention to attend the university endured even though I had shown a distinct lack of aptitude in school. At home I was a voracious reader, ploughing through weighty Victorian novels from the age of seven, but at school I was shy and quiet, and my teachers took this for deficiency in either interest or intellect, and did little to encourage me. Even in a small school I fell behind, and by my mid-teens had resigned myself to the solid middle-ground of academic achievement.
At sixteen I spent a year abroad in France, and floundered terribly in school although I improved in most other ways. My other improvements, or perhaps simply the variousness of my education, were sufficient to get me into a boarding school in Oxford, and I completed my final two years of high school enrolled in the British A-Level system in that city of dreams. Around the halfway point something changed. I realized for the first time in my life that I was intensely interested in what I was studying, and that I wanted to succeed. I also realized that if I wanted to attend Oxford University I would have to work a hell of a lot harder than I was accustomed to working. Alas this realization did not come quite soon enough to counteract the damage already done by apathy, and I spent a couple of years in a sort of limbo back in Texas. It was a time essential to my formation (or rediscovery) of self, my respect for home, and my commitment to that goal I had set at age six.
I spent a year and a half at a Texas university, where I worked relentlessly. I took the maximum number of classes allowed each semester and each summer, never missed a day of class, and received the highest marks in every subject. After a year and a half I had sufficient credits to spend my second and final year back at Oxford as a visiting student, and to Oxford I returned.
Back and forth I went between Oxford and Texas in the next few years. I returned to my beloved city for a Masters, which I received with highest honours, and in time I even married an Oxford boy, an historian I’d met years before.
All this is to say: beware the books you surround yourself with at the birth of your children. You never know what effect they may have.
Interesting stuff. I was fortunate enough to have an older brother with a strange habit of buying considerably more books than he would ever read, and so I always had this incredible wealth of literature around. Things like that really do have an effect on how a person turns out. “Show me the boy at seven” say the Jesuits “and I’ll show you the man.” I’ve never been the religious type but I’ve always liked that little saying. I noticed it in my friends, those who never had many books around the house, never really developed a love of reading. They all turned out alright, but I always feel that they’ve really missed out on something quite precious in life.