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Why you should read like a child Martin Amis was wrong about kids' books


August 14, 2023   7 mins

Back in the 18th century, Immanuel Kant grandly described the Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-imposed childishness”. But we live, we’re told, in an age desperate to reverse it. Grown-ups, apparently, aren’t what they used to be. At a time in their lives when they should be gratefully graduating into the world of mortgages, automobiles and serious books — that is, books about serial killers, adulterers and Nazis — they instead, as the psychoanalyst Josh Cohen puts it, “retreat into the dubious comforts of a pseudo-childhood”. He is quoted in a trenchant essay by James Grieg, from earlier this year, which identified the clearest embodiment of this trend: “People who identify as Hufflepuffs on their Hinge profile.”

It is a sign of how far our self-imposed childishness has gone that grown-ups today are unashamed to express passion for books aimed at teenagers — or, to use the ubiquitous but optimistic American expression — “young adults”. Only the very crustiest resist the trend. Would he ever write a children’s book, the late Martin Amis was once asked. “If I had a serious brain injury,” he is supposed to have replied.

It is not only that grown-ups have failed to put aside children’s books, but that their attitude to grown-up things remains childish. Those whose day jobs (like mine) put them in regular contact with older teenagers have been remarking for a while on the increasing demand that fiction be “relatable”. Rebecca Mead defined the attribute in the New Yorker as one possessed by “a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected”. It has increasingly become a stick with which to beat works, often classic works, featuring characters or situations with whom it’s harder to identify. Anna Karenina, for instance, or Hamlet: who among us is a haunted Danish prince or Russian adulteress?

Childishness, Kant said, is “the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance”, and Mead’s case against relatability echoes him. “To demand that a work be ‘relatable’,” she says, expresses the expectation that “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer … expects the work to be done for her.” If you can’t relate to Hamlet, in other words, you should be open to the possibility that the fault is yours, not Shakespeare’s.

But might there be a way to read children’s books without reading them childishly? The best case for the defence was made by C.S. Lewis in his apologia for reading fairy tales. “They accuse us of arrested development,” he said, “because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?” I regularly return to the books of my childhood and find exactly what Lewis describes: “Being now able to put more in, of course I get more out.”

The book of my adolescence to which I have recently returned is one to which I really oughtn’t to be able to “relate” at all, so socially alien are its setting and characters. Its protagonist and narrator is a 17-year-old English girl, an aspiring novelist and already talented diarist called Cassandra Mortmain, living with her impoverished aristocratic family in a crumbling (and rented) castle.

Her novelist father, who achieved some success with his obscure modernist debut (Jacob Wrestling), is blocked. Her stepmother, an artist’s model absurdly named “Topaz”, spends her evenings running naked through the castle grounds. Her elder sister Rose, desperately lonely, says things like: “It may interest you both to know that for some time now, I’ve been considering selling myself. If necessary, I shall go on the streets.” When Cassandra gently points out to her that she is unlikely to come by much trade in the country lanes of Suffolk, Rose asks their stepmother for “the fare to London and … a few hints”. Alas, her stepmother has none to offer.

I Capture the Castle has long inspired more than enough affection in adult readers to tolerate its whimsy; we see in it merits that can survive the reader’s passage into adulthood. It was written by Dodie Smith, best known as the author of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, another novel that can survive an adult reading — especially if you can turn away from the adorable, imperilled puppies to the fabulously camp creation that is their fur-loving nemesis, Cruella de Vil.

The tone of I Capture the Castle is less camp than fanciful. Cassandra and Rose find their bohemian, somewhat cut-off lives, transformed when two American brothers move to a nearby house and turn out to be their landlords. Rose falls in love — or so she claims — with one brother; the other brother dismisses her — or so he claims — as a mere “gold-digger”. Meanwhile, Cassandra struggles to reciprocate the affections of her “swain”, the maid’s son, who is “very fair and noble-looking” even if “his expression is just a fraction daft”. No one is saying what they think, and no one is ever fully admitting how they feel.

Are these anxieties “unrelatable” because they are about posh (if penniless) English people? Or, as I found, almost painfully relatable, because they are about the insecurities of adolescence? And because they come from asking those old questions: will I have the good fortune to find a relationship in which I can both love and be loved back, and a career that allows creative expression but also pays the bills?

Dodie Smith’s whimsy, then, is planted into a world where the stakes are real. Rose’s desperate urge to marry well — that is to say, marry wealth — is entirely familiar from the work of the author who must have been her inspiration. All the characters in I Capture the Castle are intensely aware of what W.H. Auden, in his wonderful lines about the world of Jane Austen, had called “the amorous effects of ‘brass’” — a phrase that could only come from a grown-up reader for whom Lizzie Bennett’s love life is now of less interest than the financial security of her impossible mother and sisters.

Likewise, Smith’s awareness of class. Young Stephen, the maid’s son and general dogsbody, is a more economically productive figure than any of the central characters in the book. But at one painful point he reminisces to Cassandra about when his mother told him “never to play with you unless I was invited. And to call you ‘Miss’, and never to presume. She had a hard job explaining what ‘presume’ meant.” What better image is there of the mechanisms of social class than that of a maid to an impoverished aristocrat explaining to a seven-year-old what it means to “presume”? An adequately empathetic child will understand enough to be sorry for Stephen; it may take a grown-up reader to be indignant on his behalf.

Rereading the book, I was struck by the extent of Cassandra’s moral seriousness in a story that it is tempting to see as purely comic. Nearly every one of her diary entries seems to contain a mention of her feeling guilty or ashamed about one thing or another. Is this the paralysing self-consciousness of the teenager? Or does it reveal an important axis of gender difference? Is it about a girl being trained to put other people’s needs above her own? About growing up in a society that demands more maturity of girls than of boys?

A memorable passage in Rudyard Kipling’s marvellous novel of schoolboy antics, Stalky & Co., has a schoolmaster observing the boys doing a cruel impersonation of him, and responding simply: “It’s not brutality. It’s boy; only boy.” As the American critic Steven Marcus put it in his classic essay on Kipling, “the word is being used here in a metaphysical sense and as descriptive of a metaphysical state”. I Capture the Castle is one of the few classic books I know where “girl” is treated with an equivalent reverence.

Dodie Smith encourages both her characters and her readers to grow up through an acceptance of girlhood, rather than a rejection of it. If growing up means, as the Bible says, putting away childish things, that must include what C.S. Lewis once pointed out was the most childish of things: “the fear of childishness and the desire to appear very grown up.” Cassandra’s sister Rose repeatedly embarrasses herself because both her fear and her desire are so transparent; she is not grown-up enough to know what it looks like when you’re trying too hard. Cassandra, by contrast, allows herself to be naïve.

My favourite passage of the book is the one where Cassandra gives vent to her resentment at her father’s obscure modernist writing: “Why should Father make things so difficult? Why can’t he say what he means plainly?” Her sister’s beau takes her question entirely seriously, and gives her about as good an answer as that question has ever been given: “Because there’s so much that just can’t be said plainly.” Modernists, he says, are all that stands between us and stagnation. “That’s why one ought not to let oneself resent them — though I believe it’s a normal instinct, probably due to subconscious fear of what we don’t understand.”

It’s this passage that distinguishes I Capture the Castle from the sorts of “YA” fiction that would prefer to keep people in a state of nonage. Smith’s wisdom is really the same as Lewis’s: the point is not to replace childish stupidity with adult sophistication, innocence with experience, naïveté with worldliness. As adults know well, adulthood does not mean replacing the vulnerabilities of childhood for invincibility.

Writing in the Fifties about the modish and self-consciously sophisticated novels of Jean-Paul Sartre, Iris Murdoch observed that English philosophers, unlike their French counterparts, appeared to live in a world where “people play cricket, cook cakes, make simple decisions, remember their childhood and go to the circus; not the world in which they commit sins, fall in love, say prayers or join the Communist Party”. The remark was taken at the time to be a joke at the expense of the English philosophers, but it doesn’t have to be read that way. There is something positively alarming about the idea that the sort of adult seriousness we should be striving for is what Sartre’s novels — emphatically not for children — represent. As if there were anything contemptible about adults doing such things as playing cricket, baking cakes and going to the circus: in a word, about adults playing.

One of Smith’s many contemporary admirers, and an inheritor of her English tradition of clever, self-conscious whimsy, is the scholar and children’s writer Katherine Rundell. In her essay-length book, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, she reminds us of just how much grown-ups have in common with the child they once were. Adults too, she writes, need “autonomy, peril, justice, food”. They too need “acknowledgements of fear, love, failure; of the rat that lives within the human heart”.

Of course, not every children’s book can survive its readers growing up. W.H. Auden remarked, in an essay on Lewis Carroll, that “there are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children.” I haven’t met any adults who can get anything out of the Secret Seven, for instance — or, for that matter, any contemporary children, which suggests that they were always just mediocre books. The ones that survive do so because they know how the child lives on in the adult — not as a remnant of something that should have been shed, but as something essential.


Nikhil Krishnan is a Fellow in Philosophy at Robinson College, Cambridge. His book, A Terribly Serious Adventure: Philosophy at Oxford: 1900–1960, will be published by Profile in 2023.


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Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
10 months ago

As Camus said, nothing is true which forces you to exclude. Readers read everything, from the Beano to Heidegger. No limits, no tramlines.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
10 months ago

As Camus said, nothing is true which forces you to exclude. Readers read everything, from the Beano to Heidegger. No limits, no tramlines.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
10 months ago

This “has to be relatable” thing is part of the continued dumbing down of the Western mind.
I remember being 17, randomly picking a book from the shelf of my local library, opening it and starting to read, then finding myself finally looking up, still almost euphoric and exhilarated by the experience, and noticing that I was now dark. It was Chekhov’s “The Steppe”, a story too short for a novel, too long for a short story, but a preschooler slowly being moved, in a cart drawn by oxen, across the Russian steppe was certainly not anything I could “relate to” in the 21st century Western sense.
I had a few similar experiences later, now being much older, one of them was when reading “100 Years of Solitude”.
What one relates to in works of art is that which transcends the surface of the work and awakens something new in the universality of one’s consciousness, not that makes one exclaim “Oh, that’s just like my Macdonalds on Jefferson Avenue”. I’m sure others expressed it much better than me but that’s how I see it.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
10 months ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

I had a similar experience. I was in a library revising for my A levels. I was an avid reader and once I started reading a novel, I would read it to the end. I wanted a short novel to read on the bus, an hour’s journey. I knew I wouldn’t continue my revision until I finished reading the book. I looked at the fiction books on the shelves, it wasn’t a particularly large section and selected the shortest one. Years later, I was sitting in a lecture on existentialism and a book was being discussed. I recognised it as the short novel. It was the outsider by Camus, it was only then I realised the profound effect the novel had had on me. When selecting the book, I never looked at the title or the author, but I guess that is the impact of great literature.

Last edited 10 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

You expressed that just fine: the point being that you’ve touched on something very important and in danger of being lost.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
10 months ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

I had a similar experience. I was in a library revising for my A levels. I was an avid reader and once I started reading a novel, I would read it to the end. I wanted a short novel to read on the bus, an hour’s journey. I knew I wouldn’t continue my revision until I finished reading the book. I looked at the fiction books on the shelves, it wasn’t a particularly large section and selected the shortest one. Years later, I was sitting in a lecture on existentialism and a book was being discussed. I recognised it as the short novel. It was the outsider by Camus, it was only then I realised the profound effect the novel had had on me. When selecting the book, I never looked at the title or the author, but I guess that is the impact of great literature.

Last edited 10 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
10 months ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

You expressed that just fine: the point being that you’ve touched on something very important and in danger of being lost.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
10 months ago

This “has to be relatable” thing is part of the continued dumbing down of the Western mind.
I remember being 17, randomly picking a book from the shelf of my local library, opening it and starting to read, then finding myself finally looking up, still almost euphoric and exhilarated by the experience, and noticing that I was now dark. It was Chekhov’s “The Steppe”, a story too short for a novel, too long for a short story, but a preschooler slowly being moved, in a cart drawn by oxen, across the Russian steppe was certainly not anything I could “relate to” in the 21st century Western sense.
I had a few similar experiences later, now being much older, one of them was when reading “100 Years of Solitude”.
What one relates to in works of art is that which transcends the surface of the work and awakens something new in the universality of one’s consciousness, not that makes one exclaim “Oh, that’s just like my Macdonalds on Jefferson Avenue”. I’m sure others expressed it much better than me but that’s how I see it.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
10 months ago

This article leaves out my favorite C.S. Lewis quote of all time: “a children’s book that can only be enjoyed by children, is a poor children’s book.”
As the Bible says, we are to “have the mind of a child” but also “give up childish things”.

Last edited 10 months ago by Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
10 months ago

This article leaves out my favorite C.S. Lewis quote of all time: “a children’s book that can only be enjoyed by children, is a poor children’s book.”
As the Bible says, we are to “have the mind of a child” but also “give up childish things”.

Last edited 10 months ago by Brian Villanueva
Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
10 months ago

I have never read the book but I have watched the film many times. It is an excellent film and sounds as if it is quite true to the book. Fairy tales are incredibly important to society. I am currently reading Joseph Campbell’s the hero’s journey. Apparently, George Lucas used it when writing Star Wars, though they didn’t meet until after the three original Star Wars films had been produced.

Last edited 10 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
10 months ago

I have never read the book but I have watched the film many times. It is an excellent film and sounds as if it is quite true to the book. Fairy tales are incredibly important to society. I am currently reading Joseph Campbell’s the hero’s journey. Apparently, George Lucas used it when writing Star Wars, though they didn’t meet until after the three original Star Wars films had been produced.

Last edited 10 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
Geoffrey Collyer
Geoffrey Collyer
10 months ago

I devoured all the Narnia books as a child, and read them to my children as my mum had done to us. But the problem with them as adults is that CS Lewis didn’t want children to grow up – see The Last Battle

Michel Starenky
Michel Starenky
10 months ago

Read like a child then think like a child rest of one’s life.

Michel Starenky
Michel Starenky
10 months ago

Read like a child then think like a child rest of one’s life.