What was the first novel you ever read?

The Way to Dusty DeathI just got in a couple of books (okay, 14 books but most of them were non-fiction) that I ordered, one from the UK. That one was "The Way to Dusty Death." Written in the 1970's by Alistair MacLean, this was the first novel that I ever read. I was ten at the time and was considered to be a very poor reader. More on that later. . . I read the book in a single sitting. MacLean didn't waste much time or wordage with anything outside the storyline. Compared to his contemporaries, there is no sex and no vulgar language, just non-stop action in faraway places. In short, a safe book for a 10 year-old boy with an active imagination.

The copy that I got, used, from The Orchard Bookstore in London, was in good condition with that mustiness that comes from an older book. A second printing, it had a different cover than the one that I read all those years ago in Australia. Inside the covers, though, it was the same story.

Because it was a UK edition, the language and punctuation were both customized to that country. The language I noted immediately. Using tyres for tires bothers me not in the least and there were a dozen more examples of the differences between English and whatever it is that the blokes in the UK call what we speak.

It took me 30 pages to realize that the punctuation was also different than used in the States. It was little things - using a colon to transition to dialogue, as in:

Dunnet said: 'Well, I suppose we've got to face it sometime.' MacAlpine said: 'I suppose.' Both men rose, nodded to the barman, and left.

And the quotes. In the States, we use the " to indicate speech. If you didn't see it, look at the example above. A single ' for the dialogue.

So I noted it in page 30 (or so) and promptly forgot about it, moving back into the story which, pleasingly, has held up well.

I've reread some of my childhood favorites and not all of them has. E.E. "Doc" Smith's Skylarks of Space series is one that has not translated well into the modern world. Written at the beginning of aviation, the science has become outdated and the characterizations almost Victorian. Some of the presumptions of society, the rich playboy who owns his own biplane and lands where ever he likes is a remnant of a bygone era. I haven't read any of the old Doc Savage novels but I wonder if they don't suffer similarly.

The Way to Dusty Death is set in Europe (still around), features Grand Prix racing (still around), drugs (still around), and a pretty girl (thank goodness they're still around!). Some of the attitudes are old-fashioned but still recognizable unlike Smith's series.

And I find it sad that no one writes books like this anymore, with generally strong story-telling. MacLean didn't spend pages discussing the role of the rear outside stabilizer in a race car and the effects of damage to it a la Clancy who quite literally did spend pages on a new propulsion system in The Hunt for Red October. Not a complaint against Clancy, it's just a different style, one that introduced a whole new sub-genre, the techno-thriller. Nope, MacLean sabotaged the stabilizer, caused the crash, and off we went. Cause, effect. No engineering degree required.

He also didn't go into great detail about a punch. Lee Child has his punches last for paragraphs, from calculation of time to initiate action, consequences, launching the strike, the muscle movement throughout the arm, the moment of impact, the effect of impact, the aftermath of impact . . .

MacLean's version: Johnny Harlow gets hit by a sap.

And again, we move on with the action.

And, for a young boy, one that's not a great reader, action was what I wanted along with heroes. I mentioned I was considered a poor reader at age 10. I was, though I knew the mechanics of reading. Then we moved to Alice Springs, Australia. Interesting point about the Alice at that point in time. There was no TV. None.

Plenty of sunshine and more open desert than a pre-teen had time to explore. It's amazing that none of the kids I hung with ever got bit by a spider or a snake, considering we'd go hunting for them. Or that none of us fell off a cliff rockclimbing -  though Phil Decosta tried once.

But no TV. As a family we played a lot of cards and learned to shoot darts. But those require other people.

Reading doesn't so, against my mother's wishes, I started reading comic books, began devouring them. This was before comics became graphic books. Back then, they were just comics, Sgt. Rock and the Archies and the Green Lantern.

We were in Australia six months when I saw a book, black cover with a silenced gun, that caught my eye. No one told me it was an adult book and beyond my reading level. My mom saw me reading it, nodded, and left me to it. Today, a teacher would take it away and give the kid some pap that he'll toss on the desk and ignore. But that book was my first novel. . .

That book was a turning point. In a very short period of time, I went from not reading to reading 1-2 pulps a day. I wiped out the entire school library, primary and secondary, of the thrillers and sci-fi in a couple of years. Also knocked out the sports stories. Dabbled with Leon Uris and Michener.  Decided that Michener must have been paid by the word and moved on.

I visited the Moons of Barsoom, the jungles with Doc Savage, and wanted to be the Grey Lensman or James Bond. I fought the mafia with Mack Bolan, became the Destroyer with Remo Williams, and visited Rama with Arthur C. Clarke.

I loved books, or more accurately, I loved stories and read voraciously to soak them up.

All because I picked up a book and nobody took it away.