The wardrobe in the Retiring Room January 22, 2010Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, life, memories.
Tags: books, fangirl, fantasy novels, his dark materials, philip pullman
People often talk about ‘gateway drugs’, lighter or less-extreme substances that introduce people into the world of addiction. I’ve noticed, in my case at least, a similar trend with literary genres. I always tend to come to a new genre of literature with preconceived ideas about it, and strong opinions as to whether I will enjoy reading it or not. Then I get my ‘gateway novel’, and I’m an instant convert. I want to talk about my ‘gateway fantasy novel’.
As everyone who’s ever spoken to me or read this blog knows, I am deeply, deeply obsessed with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and credit it with causing just about everything that is good in my life. You may know that it was this series that was responsible for my career as a newspaper reviewer, and (indirectly) my presence as a PhD student at Cambridge. You may not know, however, that I consider it my ‘gateway fantasy series’.
I was given a copy of the first book in the trilogy, Northern Lights, for my 13th birthday in late 1997. It formed part of a large collection of books that I’d been given for Christmas and my birthday by my mother. She always gave me books, usually after a year of scouring review pages of newspapers and literary magazines and keeping track of things that looked well-written and interesting. At this point, I was a fairly omnivorous reader. I had read fantasy novels (most notably those written by Australian YA geniuses Victor Kelleher and Gillian Rubinstein) but I didn’t really notice genre, only quality and personal resonance. My favourite books were all historical novels: A Little Princess, The Girls in the Velvet Frame, Of Nightingales That Weep and the Pagan Chronicles.
I took Northern Lights with me down the South Coast when my dad took my sister and me there for a week-long holiday in late December. I was not too impressed with it, judging it solely on its cover. ‘I don’t like books about animals,’ I thought, and read every other book I’d brought. Two days into the holiday, I was whining to my sister that I ‘had nothing to read’.
‘Why don’t you read this?’, she asked, gesturing at Northern Lights. (I should add that she had not read it herself. She was merely exasperated with my complaints.) With trepidation, I opened it and read the first page. Within two paragraphs, I was hooked. I read the whole book in one day, and when I finished, I simply flipped back to the beginning and began to read it again. After my second read-through, I was so overwhelmed by the themes my 13-year-old brain was only just beginning to comprehend that I had to phone up my mother and rave at her for hours. (As a child and teenager, my poor mother was the unfortunate recipient of many of my outpourings of literary enthusiasm. I would rehash the plot of a book, rhapsodise about its amazing themes and babble about how it related to my own life.)
Thus began a lifelong love affair with (good quality, for the most part) fantasy literature. After Northern Lights I deliberately sought out the otherworldly and fantastical, and although it would take another 10 years before a book left me that overwhelmed (American Gods by Neil Gaiman, 2008), I haven’t regretted a minute of it. My reading diet is slightly too imbalanced in the fantasy area, despite desultory, half-hearted efforts on my part to remedy this. I followed Lyra into the wardrobe in the Jordan College Retiring Room in 1997, and I found a world of inexhaustible wonder.
Did any of my readers have similarly transformative ‘gateway’ experiences? (Not necessarily with fantasy novels, but just with some kind of text?)