Read to enjoy the world around you
Once you learn to read, you will be forever free. — Frederick Douglass
We all know the benefits of being able to read and write. We’ve had that drummed into us throughout our whole school lives. Have you ever sat back and pondered if a specific book changed your life? I’m sure you would have a few.
Nowadays, I’m an author and photographer who still is able to read a lot. Back in school, I read a lot of books and dreamed about getting out there and living what I’d read.
The Big Wide World
I was sitting on a beach on Koh Rong Samloem, an island off Cambodia when I started to wonder how much of what I’d read as a kid, and into my teens, had shaped me into the man I am today. My wife and I had just visited the No.1 item on my bucket list, Angkor Wat, so I was probably more philosophical than usual. I’d started my bucket list when I was twenty, and thirty years later, I got to spend my fiftieth birthday photographing the sunrise over the Temples of Siem Reap.
So, it was while I was lying on the most perfect of beaches that I narrowed it down to the seminal influence in my life. Loads of books.
If you are going to get anywhere in life you have to read a lot of books. – Roald Dahl
I was fortunate to have a family and relatives who gave me books for birthdays and Christmas. I guess it was easy – “The weird bloody kid loves books. Get him another.’ I thank you all.
Being at boarding school for half my young life, I got to bullshit study monitors and teachers in evening study. They believed my tales of why I needed additional books from the library to do my homework and so allowed me to explore the written world in the shelves. I thank you all.
In the end, it was the worldbuilding and storytelling within those very pages that took my eyes away from my life and turned them towards the vast world out there.
Note: It was also the countless reference books, with beautiful images, that fired up my photographic eye long before I’d ever pressed the shutter.
Reading is a discount ticket to everywhere. – Mary Schmich
Here are the wonderous books that kicked my imagination into overdrive
Willard Price adventure books
The series is about two teenagers who join their father in the wildlife capture business. While this practice is probably frowned upon today, their adventures as they travelled across the world, catching wildlife and birds for zoos was a key reason for my interest in animals from other continents, not just Africa.
What was not to love about these illustrated classics. Roving reporter, sleuth, traveller of the world, astronaut, friend, and man who could understand small white dogs.
Another illustrated series that told of a world far away. A weird magical potion gave a small village in Gaul the power to stop the entire Roman army. Names that played on words like Vitalstatistix, Getafix, Cacofonix, Metallurgix, Jellibabix, and it went on and on. Great stories as they travelled around Europe (and the Americas). And yes, there was a character called Coronavirus too.
Hardy Boys – Franklin W Dixon
Who didn’t love the mysteries these boys had to solve? Kept you enthralled with the imagination flying for days as you wanted to solve crimes in your safe neighbourhood.
Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
In the 1970s in South Africa, a well-known beverage company, for a time, used to have images of the characters from Treasure Island on the inside of the bottle tops. You could remove them, collect them, and then trade them at school. My grandfather owned a hotel which had a bar in it, so we used to sneak in and retrieve as many bottle tops from the floor as we could. I loved the book too.
Teddy Lester series – John Finnemore
There were six books in the series I think, and it was about the journey of a boy, and his chums in a fictitious public school in England called Slapton. I think many of the endeavours that Teddy got up to affected the mischievous adventures that I inevitably got caught doing. There were undoubtedly a few hidings in the principal’s office due to misguided ambitions to forge a life of innocent mischief.
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
Not much more I can add about these timeless classics other than them stirring up my interest in American history. Twain’s writing is still a thing of beauty today.
Signs of the Wild – Clive walker
Along with my bird books, Signs of the Wild had such an influence on my love of nature. I wanted to be a game ranger just like him for so very long. He had also studied art, and I loved his painting style of so many of the animals that I wanted to help. I still have the original book that I bought with my pocket money in 1982.
All creatures great and small – James Herriott
I grew up on a farm north of Pretoria in South Africa and loved the freedom and independence that it brought to myself and my three sisters. We had all types of animals from guinea pigs to cattle. This meant having vets around all the time, in fact, we had vet students renting a cottage at the bottom of the farm, so they got to treat the menagerie, and we got to watch and learn. I loved Herriott’s antics that he wrote about in all his books, and the descriptions of the British countryside is probably one of the reasons that I now live in West Sussex, England.
My family and other animals – Gerald Durrell
Collecting animals and insects as a child was a given on the farm. Gerald Durrell’s life in his books was something I loved to read about (and was slightly envious of). I kept reading his later books too and followed his conservation work at Jersey Zoo right up until his death.
Ring of bright water – Gavin Maxwell
Actually, I saw the movie first on this occasion. Such a heart-wrenching story, but a joy to watch and read. It fostered my conservation belief that we should always try to re-introduce captive wild animals back into their natural world.
Born Free and Queen of Sheba – Joy Adamson
Loved reading about Joy and George Adamson’s life and the various projects they took on in Africa. Everyone knows of and loves Born Free (book, movie and conservation organisation). I loved Queen of Sheba more which meant I read it a few times (I prefer leopards and cheetahs to lions).
Kon Tiki and Ra Expeditions – Thor Heyerdahl
Everything leading up to reading about Thor Heyerdahl’s adventures was just to get me ready to make plans to leave home and travel. The craziness of the dream to build boats of balsa wood and reed, then traverse vast open oceans was when I decided that I would travel the world even if it meant leaving my beloved Africa. Rereading them in my forties, I still got goosebumps at the audacity of the plans. Along with Ranulph Fiennes and Sir Edmund Hilary, he remains influential in my belief regarding the importance of risk and danger in our daily lives.
War comics and countless books relating to modern warfare.
Still collect old War Library and Battle Picture library comics if I can get my hands on early editions. I was fascinated by military history and always thought if I had gone to university, I would have loved to study history as a whole. It led to me enjoying my two years conscription in the air force when so many didn’t like it.
Leviathan – John Gordon Davis
Leviathan was a seminal book for me as a young environmentalist, and would significantly affect me as an author in later life. I read it many times as a kid as a way to keep focused on helping conservation projects. As I travelled the world photographing wildlife and seeing the environmental damage we were inflicting on the planet it inspired me to write. I wanted my writing to make some small difference, so I started a series of novellas – The Hudson Drake series as a result.
Which books inspired you?
I’m sure there were other books I read as a kid, but I’ve taken you on this self-indulgent journey for long enough. What books influenced you as a child? Which do you look back on with fondness?
Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by his heart, and his friends can only read the title – Virginia Woolf
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