Christmas and the Boy Reader

(ArtMarie, Grabien)
December 24, 2023

There were always books for Christmas. Mounds of them: flurries of paperbacks, drifts of presentation copies inscribed in the unreadably copperplate hand of maiden great aunts, avalanches of books on chess, and manuals of do-it-yourself chemistry experiments using household items! And teach-yourself sleight-of-hand magic guides, and the not all-that-gratefully-received Latin to English—and English to Latin!—dictionary. The already-too-childish children's chapter books, from distant acquaintances of our parents. The popular Victorian and Edwardian fiction, adult stories that had somehow moved down the reader's scale to be thought of as proper for young readers, marketed to harried uncles seeking something in last-minute bookstores: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Scarlet Pimpernel.

We never got Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books. But I remember other series: Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, the Rover Boys, the Wizard of Oz books, although mostly as stray and dusty copies on bookshelves in the childhood bedrooms of aunts and uncles, long since moved away from my grandmother's house. The standard girls' books of their era, too: Pollyanna, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Daddy Long-Legs, A Little Princess. Ugh. Daddy Long-Legs and A Little Princess: Even at eight or nine years old, I had a vague unease about the wish-fulfillment in them. But there they were, on the old shelves, demanding to be read by a child stretched out on the faded ripcord bedspreads of a generation past.

Not that my own preferences were much better. The Mad Scientists' Club, for example. I ached for the book when I saw it in one of those Scholastic Books catalogues they used to hand out in school, and I couldn't understand why my mother wouldn't let me place an order, till the paperback showed up in a Christmas stocking. My first vague inklings of sexuality came from Robert E. Howard's Conan books—but, then, my first creeping sense of a malevolent supernatural, like a gateway drug for H.P. Lovecraft, came from those Conan stories, too. Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World: a dive into the genre of lost primitivism that began with Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli in the first Jungle Book and ended with a thud, for me, at Rima the Bird Girl in William Henry Hudson's Green Mansions—just as my love of pirates began with Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood, and closed hard when someone gave me Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica, about the horrifying indifference of children taken by pirates, as a Christmas book when I was 11 or 12.

(C.E. Brock for 'A Christmas Carol')

A mistake, in those book-strewn days, was the giving of Christmas books for Christmas. The time for the tearjerkery of Henry van Dyke's The Other Wise Man or Kate Douglas Wiggin's The Birds' Christmas Carol is in Advent's toboggan run toward Christmas. Even the better Christmas books—Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales, which my parents would read aloud—need to come before the actual arrival of Christmas. I've always had a soft spot for Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story and O. Henry's truly sappy "The Gift of the Magi," but they're for the days when the goose is getting fat. Once the goose is cooked, so are they.

But poetry began for me with Louis Untermeyer's Golden Treasury of Poetry, which I still have with the Christmas inscription from my grandmother, though the binding is cracked and the pages drift out like snowfall when I take it down from the shelf. Philosophy began with Plato's Apology and Crito, which I didn't understand but seemed adult and sad. Mysteries started with Encyclopedia Brown and quickly moved to Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage and Rex Stout's The Golden Spiders. Science fiction began with A Wrinkle in Time and Flowers for Algernon. Fantasy began as a dive into the deep end with The Lord of the Rings when I was 10. Theology began with the lives of the saints in a children's version of the Golden Legend.

Every era has its advantages and disadvantages, its benefits and curses. My time saw the collapse of shared knowledge, the decay of belief in authority, the failure of confidence in culture. But books were everywhere. We had that, at least. Icebergs of books, to cling to as we set out on the sea of adulthood. Cascades of books, like heaps of snow collapsing from branch to branch down a pine tree. Avalanches of books as their unsteady stacks gave way. And Christmas was their stormhead, their North Pole origin. New authors, new genres, new worlds, new lives to live vicariously—all unwrapped at Christmas. Each examined and weighed and felt, with one chosen to sneak upstairs and read early on Christmas afternoon, while the scent of the pine tree and the kitchen's first sautéings drifted up the stairwell.

With the triumph of eBooks and eReaders these days, you can't say that text has disappeared. If anything, the computer revolution has made written words more ubiquitous, more all-surrounding, more intrusive. But the fading of physical books seems to have brought with it a fading of a category we used to acknowledge: the boy reader.

Oh, there are still boys and still books. Still boys who read. But hard to find anymore is the culturally accepted category of the boy reader, the bright little kid who inhales books like oxygen—"reading as if for life," in Dickens's description of the young David Copperfield—and wants to know everything: living in books every life, feeling in characters every emotion. The little boy who needs to grasp the world.

This is something a little different from the books listed these days by web pages with such titles as "Books That Boys Say Are Awesome." The explicitly boyish boys' book existed, back in the day, and I remember reading a worn and rebound copy of The Kid Who Batted 1.000 in a junior-high-school library, along with such boys-at-boarding-school stories as Owen Johnson's The Prodigious Hickey. Bertrand R. Brinley's Rocket Manual for Amateurs, for that matter: boys' books, all.

But the boys of the boy-reader type would receive a copy of, say, Lost Horizon (a boy's book, maybe) and then want to read Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Random Harvest and the rest of James Hilton's novels. In the 1940s, Lionel Trilling looked back at the sets of books that had filled the bookshelves of the middle-class—or, at least, the middle-class strivers, who wanted their children to grow up surrounded by the accoutrements of culture. And he decried the decline of the set on those family shelves—The Works of Dickens, The Collected Writings of Thackeray, The Complete Washington Irving—observing that, upon discovering an author, young readers would "remain loyal to him until they had read him by the yard."

Girls could read this way, too, of course, but the culture has lost the idea of the boy reader more completely than that of the girl reader. In Strong Opinions, a collection of his criticism, Vladimir Nabokov shows us almost the ideal model of that boy reader, turned adult. Of G.K. Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad alike, he remarks, "A favorite between the ages of 8 and 14. Essentially a writer for very young people." Hemingway is "a writer of books for boys. Certainly better than Conrad." He says of Shakespeare that he "read complete works between 14 and 15." H.G. Wells was "my favorite writer when I was a boy. His sociological cogitations can be safely ignored, but his romances and fantasies are superb."

Few of us are Trillings or Nabokovs, but they belonged in adulthood to a recognizable type, having been boy readers (in an era with an almost moral distinction, greater than my later time held, of the difference between literature culturally recognized as great and books that were merely popular or fun). And recognition of that type has clearly faded. I paid a Christmas visit to a distant neighbor's house early last December, a family with lots of kids and cousins, all of them bright. But as the parents wrapped packages while we chatted, I noticed the absence of books—the physical hard copies that had been the center of Christmas gift-giving when I was young. I don't blame them. Why give books when the children can simply download, with a library subscription or an account with an eBook-seller, the texts they want?

And yet, I reach my hand down into the ice-flanged sea of memory, and I pull out the copy of Elliot Paul's comic lost-generation-in-Paris mystery, The Mysterious Mickey Finn, that my older sister gave me the Christmas I was 12, my introduction to the Dover catalogue of reprints of everything from Capablanca's chess memoirs to Leonardo da Vinci's drawings. Like taking a core sample of a glacier, I can drill down the layers of past Christmas seasons to find Colin Wilson's The Outsider, an account of cultural misfits that briefly seemed, when I was a teenager, the most meaningful thing I had ever read. And Robert Frost's Collected Poems, which took years to appreciate. Zorba the Greek. Robert Heinlein's sci-fi juveniles. Lord Jim. Back at the beginning, A Child's Garden of Verses. And toward the end of childhood, Thomas à Kempis's The Imitation of Christ.

Christmas was books, and books Christmas, in those days now mostly washed down to the cold sea. Was it such a bad way to grow up?

Joseph Bottum is director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University and poetry editor of the New York Sun. His most recent book is the poetry collection, Spending the Winter.