I had a fairly bookish childhood. I don’t mean that I was a sedentary youth; I spent a greater portion of my days out of doors than is normal for most children in our culture today, given our dread of strangers, our ignorance of our neighbors, and our bizarre belief that sports are things one should play on a large television screen. I was a healthy specimen, I like to think, brawny but lissome, with a naturally fluid swing that could devastate just about any fastball (though it was perhaps a little feeble against good breaking balls). If I was a mite pallid, it was only on account of my British ancestry; and throughout the summers I wore a complexion somewhere between cerise and polished copper.
What I mean, rather, is that when I turned from play or study, my natural retreat was into books. And, like anyone whose sensibility and personality were fashioned by a great deal of childhood reading, I have a sort of list somewhere at the back of my mind of those texts that were the most important to me in opening my mind to the literature of the world. It’s a long list, but a precise one, and there are a few especially important titles on it to which I return with some regularity: the Iliad and the Odyssey, Don Quixote, the Alice books, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, The Pickwick Papers, and so on. Each of them is a kind of familiar and welcoming home (with large adjoining gardens), and no matter how often I visit I find that time briefly loses its power to menace me with disappointment, death, or deadlines.
I have to admit, however, in those very rare moments when I’m being perfectly honest with myself, that there is something slightly self-serving in the way I choose to remember the books that formed me. It’s definitely a selective list I keep in my mind. I mean, yes, they were all there—Homer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dickens, and all the rest—but they by no means had only one another for company. A child’s appetite for stories is rapaciously indiscriminate; up till about the age of twelve (and perhaps a little beyond), every child is a philistine.
No matter how much good literature he or she may devour, if left to his or her own devices it will all be taken in along with immense quantities of delectable trash. I would like to imagine that during all those golden solitary afternoons, I was forever gallivanting through the Manchegan countryside or wandering in an enchanted forest outside Athens or coursing around the walls of Troy with a bronze-tipped spear in hand, but the truth is that I was also squandering a great deal of time discovering lost civilizations deep in the Congolese jungle or battling Tharks in the arid wastelands of a dying Mars.
But, of course, you may not be familiar with Tharks.
As I write these words, the film shakily perched atop the box office is John Carter, based on the 1917 novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950), the tale of a former Confederate officer (who happens, by the by, to be an ageless warrior who has no memory of having been a child) mystically transported to the red planet. I have no intention of seeing the movie. I dislike CGI spectaculars, for one thing; for another, history suggests that it will almost certainly be a disappointment to anyone familiar with the original novel. No writer’s books have inspired a greater number of films than have those of Burroughs, and not a single one of those films is faithful to the source material (or particularly good, for that matter).
Burroughs was, you see, the inventor of Tarzan—though, not, I hasten to add, of the inarticulate oaf portrayed in the Johnny Weissmuller movies, or of any other of the celluloid versions of the character. The Tarzan of the novels, was raised by apes and capable of killing lions with his bare hands (and other useful tricks like that), but he was also John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke, a sophisticated if taciturn man, as much at home in the clubs of London and salons of Paris as in the African wilds, capable of mastering any language in a matter of weeks, ferocious in his wrath but fairly Victorian in his morals, fond of raw meat but an excellent host nonetheless, and steadfast in his fidelity to his wife Jane—and, contrary to rumors, she was indeed his wife (she was also a Marylander of colonial stock, which means she may have been a distant relative of mine).
Somewhere around the ages of ten to twelve, I read all of the Tarzan books. I also read all of the Mars novels, as well as the Pellucidar novels, the Carson of Venus novels, the Moon Maid trilogy, the Caprona trilogy, the Apache novels, and so on. It all washed over me without, as far as I can tell, affecting my mental life too deeply, which is for the best. Burroughs was an odd man: an atheist, except when discussing morality; politically conservative, but culturally something of a primitivist romantic; a man who prided himself on his severe practicality, but who seemed genuinely fascinated by such things as reincarnation, telepathy, and astral projection.
He was also an absolutely god-awful writer. True, he had certain very real gifts as a storyteller: He could describe physical action with an enviable clarity and economy; he had an odd knack for making the most ridiculous of plots seem somehow perfectly plausible, simply by virtue of his pacing; and he had a very real ability to imagine alternative realities in curiously compelling detail. But, all that granted, when I peer back into those books now (as this new film has inspired me to do), I find myself constantly wincing at the prose and the plotting, until aesthetic exhaustion forces me to close the covers.
And yet . . . and yet . . . it would be dishonorable of me not to acknowledge that I owe Burroughs some real debt for allowing my imagination to range at large through all the bizarre worlds that he created. I certainly owe him a special thanks for the Mars novels—at least, the first several of them—not only on account of the Tharks (very tall green fellows with four arms and tusks that curve upward from their lower jaws), and the great floating airships, and the oxygen factory struggling to preserve the atmosphere of a dying world, and the great glittering city-state of Helium, and the splendid Dejah Thoris (the eponymous princess of the first book’s title, John Carter’s great love and eventual wife, and—like all the Martians—a proud nudist), but on account of the sheer appetite for reading that they nourished in me.
They, and other books like them (the novels of H. Rider Haggard and Sax Rohmer, for example), as well as popular literature of a purer water (John Buchan, Rafael Sabatini, Arthur Conan Doyle, Baroness Orczy), had a vital role in teaching me the dignity and delight of the imagination’s inner vastness. All the arts are “rational dreams,” of course, but creative dreaming has to become a habit of the soul before it can be disciplined and refined into an art of the mind.
A child takes everything in, and should do so, and in time the books of enduring value will distinguish themselves from the books that should be left in the mind’s nursery closets. When I was old enough to realize that, say, Don Quixote is a very adult book, I was ready to return to it again and again, always to discover new pleasures and perplexities; I was also ready to recognize that Wonderland and the other side of the looking-glass and Toad Hall are places that grow in richness as one ages, no less than Cervantes’ La Mancha or Homer’s Troy or Shakespeare’s Athens.
Nothing of the sort can be said of anything Burroughs ever created. His books fall into the strange category of foundational ephemera; once they have discharged their part in the incubation of one’s personality, they should be gently but firmly put away. If they survive in the memory, it should be only as a kind of atmosphere; the texts themselves have nothing more to offer. Even so, I want here to praise them and all those other good bad books that helped teach me to seek out and love far better books than they, and to voice the hope that my childhood experience of total immersion in stories that required as much from my imagination as they gave in return is not becoming an ever rarer thing for children.
Statistics tell us that children today spend a great deal of time in front of screens—televisions, computers, tablets, car DVD systems, and so on—and very little reading. It seems to me a sad thing for a child to rely chiefly on entertainments that render the imagination mostly quiescent. There is a point in every life at which the dimensions of the imagination become largely fixed, and I suspect that those dimensions also somehow determine the limits of a person’s powers of reason. And this—not to sound too alarmist—ought perhaps to cause us some anxiety. That, though, is a topic for another time.
David Bentley Hart is an editor at large for First Things. His most recent book is The Devil and Pierre Gernet.