Danny Yee >> Travelogues >> Oxford Blog >> Books + Ideas
spires from Carfax

first adult books

Books + Ideas — December 2010

What were the first adult books you read? I realised in a recent conversation that I can still remember quite a bit about my parents' books, in many cases down to which shelf they were on, and that I still recall some of the earliest adult books I read.

In early primary school I just ploughed through everything in the school library, but some time around ten or eleven I started migrating to adult novels, first from my parents' books and then from the local library (which fortunately had an excellent science fiction and fantasy holding).

I'm not sure which books I read first, but the following are among the ones that I remember as being confronting or influential:

* I read Lord of the Rings when I was about ten, and Tolkien was a huge influence on my sister and me. Lord of the Rings is not "adult" in the way something like A Song of Ice and Fire is, but it's still a huge step up from Narnia, which it pretty much purged from our affection.

* Despite being about rabbits, Richard Adams' Watership Down is not a children's book at all and I can remember finding it quite confronting. And the opening chapter of Shardik, with a bear being driven by a forest fire, left a huge impression on me. I think this was the first book I read from my parents' "general fiction" shelf behind the television. (I think I had some idea of proceeding alphabetically!)

* I read through my father's shelf of classical literature (Penguin Classics), which included Plutarch and Herodotus and Livy and Tacitus, but the writer who made the greatest impression on me was Thucydides. The tragedy of the disaster in Syracuse was somewhat overwhelming for an (11?) year old.

* Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction for children but also for adults, so that was an almost accidental progression. And I must have started on Mary Renault early, as I remember the opening castration in The Persian Boy being a bit of a shock.

* My father's science fiction collection included The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gold the Man, the Dorsai trilogy, and so forth.

I never really read "young adult" books. The library did have a section of those, but the sf and fantasy was all in the adult fiction.

When I got to high school, I worked out that my $10/week allowance would stretch to a book a day, buying $2 paperbacks from Tyrell's secondhand bookshop in Crows Nest on my way home. And since I was exempted from having to do any work in maths classes I had a huge amount of time to read, and ploughed through a couple of dozen books a week in junior high school.

My parents never put any controls on my reading, at least not that I noticed, and it would probably have been impossible anyway.


  1. James Bond, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, HG Wells, Orwell?

    Comment by Jorn — December 2010
  2. My father's sf included books by Asimov and Bradbury and I read them early. (Asimov is not really "adult" in the sense of having anything confronting for a child, though.) I think Wells and Orwell were on my parents' "general fiction" shelf rather than with the science fiction, so I got to them later. And I've still never read any Ian Fleming/James Bond (or if I have I've totally forgotten about it).

    Comment by danny — December 2010
  3. We're talking c1963 here, so there were also some black novelists: James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison...

    Comment by Jorn — December 2010
  4. I read lots of kid's fiction. Started on Tom Swift in 3rd class and the Hardy Boys and read the entire primary school library. That included the Narnia series and Swallows and Amazons (which they wouldn't let me read in 4th class) was probably the best of it.

    Adult books were for English which I generally avoided by reading enough crib notes to mostly pass. Though we studied The Hobbit at the end of year 7. After that I read Lord of Rings and what ever SF and Fantasy was in the surrounding libraries. Whenever we went into town to see a film we would go to Ashwoods and buy SF and Fantasy, including the old anthologies of short stories and stuff by Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Niven etc. and pass them around.

    Comment by David Watford — December 2010
  5. Ah yes, I remember weeping over Thucydides! And I think I remember reading The Lord of the Rings at the same time as you, with you on the right side and me on the left because you were always ahead of me. This doesn't seem like a very practical arrangement, with hindsight, but it suggests that we were pretty good at cooperating.

    Comment by Jenny — December 2010
  6. That is a wonderful reading list. I can't imagine anyone here in the US growing up having read all you mention. It's what a great education is and enables: reading widely, all kinds of books. The Lord of the Rings escapes all classification and could never be imitated. It was the most widely read book in the English language in the 20th century and I believe it will continue to be a favorite. Anyway, my hat's off to Britain for its amazing literature.

    Comment by David A. Bedford — December 2010
  7. I could not say what the first Adults book was, although I do remember reading the Karma Sutra when about 10, which qualifies for adult in at least two senses. The bookshelf right outside my father's room was a treasure trove of eclectica, and I read a book about the holocaust, complete with photos, said Karma Sutra, and rather a lot of conspiracy theories involving illuminati. 'The Population Bomb' was there, and stuff about telekenesis and other odd topics.

    I was given the diaries of Darwin on the Beagle at about 10, and pored over "Our bodies ourselves" from the Boston Women's Health Collective (especially 'Sarah, a dyke from New York', who has been my style icon ever since in her corduroy and flat cap). I remember trying to get into Hobbes very early on, although maybe a bit later than 10. So very eclectic. And the Lord of the Rings goes without saying....

    Comment by Jarnot — December 2010
  8. "Adult" is a bit ambiguous, isn't it! I was envisaging anything that was a step up from children's books either because of its language and style or because it dealt with confronting ideas. I don't think there was much in the way of X-rated material in the family house. The raunchiest book I can remember was Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden. (We had a Kama Sutra too, but it was a stolid old translation bundled with Plato's Phaedrus and would probably have been more exciting to me if it had been in Sanskrit.)

    Comment by danny — December 2010

TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Books + Ideas << Oxford Blog << Travelogues << Danny Yee