Alan Sillitoe, My Pleasurable Education of Reading

Often an unexpected incident opens one's eyes and moves one to try out new paths. Here Michael Cullen, the young hero of Sillitoe's "A Start in Life" (1970), makes a surprising discovery in a rather unusual way.

At home I wouldn't be seen dead reading a book, not until I left school anyway. If I did they'd have thought I was either mad or ill, and I didn't want them tucking me up in bed or sending for a doctor without good reason. When I did leave school, I read at work, and it was taken more amiss than before. After being sacked for this from a couple of factories (that I couldn't stand anyway because of the stink and noise, not to mention the work) I was careful to get jobs as an errand boy or messenger, pushing a bike with a high front loaded with cloth or groceries from one place to another. On my way back I'd lean the bike by the wall of a canal bridge and take half an hour at my book or comic. I was consequently looked on as intelligent because I never lost my way, but not very diligent because I always took so long over it.
On one trip I lingered through town and looked in a bookshop window. One of the titles which caught my eye was The Way of All Flesh. I stood in my overalls and gazed at it, and when a young girl also looked into the window I felt embarrassed in case she thought I had nothing but eyes for a book with a title like that. In a way I had, but I held my ground. I'd always liked books about sex, and this one I hadn't heard of, and as it was a paperback I went in to buy it. The girl had also decided to buy something, a young fair beauty of an office tart no doubt; and she stood by the row of books wherein I knew I would find the one I was looking for. So I held back, and glanced at a row of prayer books and Bibles, and I couldn't understand why they were in the same shop with the sort of book I longed to get.
An assistant asked what I wanted, and I told him I was just looking around, so the toffee-nose slunk back to his desk to wrap up parcels. I'd been out from my work-place too long to stay much more, and because the girl wouldn't move from the paperback shelves I made up my mind to come again the following day. This I did, handed the book to the man, who took my money and slid it into a bag so that no one would think I'd stolen it as I went out.
But I'd slid one book under my jacket, on the principle of buy one - nick one, which merely meant I'd got them both for half-price. I certainly wasn't a thief, to get them for nothing. The book I'd taken free was called The Divine Comedy because I thought that was dirty as well, especially as it was written by an Italian. I was so pleased with my haul I began reading by the fire that night after Mother had gone out. My eyes were avid and my mind eager as I propped both feet on the coal scuttle and opened The Way of All Flesh. I didn't imagine it would be easy, because I knew that in this sort of Penguin book you could hardly expect to read about anybody in bed together for the first fifty pages. But it turned out to be so interesting that I stuck at it, and by the time Mother came back at half past ten I'd forgotten what I'd expected from the book when I opened it.
After that, other good books were chewed into my maw; and though I never got the throstle- titillation that drew me to them in the first place (which is not to say I was always disappointed), I nevertheless saw that there was more to books than reading about sex and gangsters. I had always been unsatisfied by these two subjects, because the sex seemed unreal and always had to be paid for in some grisly way, and the gangsters were all rotten and made of cardboard and so got what they deserved at the first punch of the law. I can see how innocent I was, and though this may be usual in any ordinary youth it was no great advantage if you were a bastard. While labouring under my pleasurable education of reading, I began to see that all was not well with the life I had chosen to lead, because it was life itself that had chosen to lead me a dance that I did not want. To put it bluntly, I was fed up with work, with home, and with living the way I did.


tuck sb. up in bed: put/send sb. to bed
take sth. amiss : be displeased by sth.
errand boy : Laufbursche messenger: sb. who carries a piece of news (message)
: hard-working
linger : take one's time, walk around slowly
The Way of All Flesh: englischer Roman (1903) von Samuel Butler (1835-1902), eine bissige Kritik viktorianischer Erziehungsmethoden
embarrassed : uneasy, un comfortable
hold one's ground: not move back
office tart (sl.): ',Büromieze"
tof fee-nose (sl.): snob
slink, slunk, slunk: sich davonschleichen
slide, slid, slid: (here) put
nick sth. (sl.): etwas klauen
The Divine Comedy: italienisches Versepos (1307-1321) von Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
haul (n.): stolen good(s)
avid : gierig
eager: eifrig
prop sth.: put sth. up
coal scuttle: Kohleneimer
Penguin book: English paperback (series) with a penguin as a trademark
books were chewed into my maw: ich verschlang die Bücher nur so
throstle-titillation: prickelndes Gefühl 36 nevertheless: however, still
there was more to books than reading about sex and gangsters:
books had more to offer than just stories about sex and gangsters
grisly : causing horror or fear
rotten (sl.):
made of cardboard:
(here) false, lifeless (cardboard: Pappe)
lead sb. a dance: cause sb. a lot of trouble
to put it bluntly: to say it in a very direct way

Understanding the contents
1. What do we learn about the young man's family background?
2. Why does he look for jobs as an errand boy or messenger?
3. a) What do his two visits to the bookshop tell us about Michael Cullen's reading habits? b) Why does he choose the two classics at the bookshop?
c) Why does he not consider the theft of a book to be stealing?
To what conclusion does he come when comparing the books he used to read with those he reads now?
5. In what way do the new books finally change him?

Analysing the text

When talking about texts we distinguish between two different categories: text type and text form. The term "text type" refers to the intentions behind the text, i.e. whether the text is used to tell a story, to describe, to teach or explain something, to tell somebody how to do something or to convince somebody of something. The term "text form" refers to the way in which the text type is realized, e.g. as a poem* or, in the case of this text, as an excerpt from a novel.
6. The text form novel is one possible realization of the text type narration. Narrative texts, or simply narratives, tell a story. They relate actions and events in some kind of time order or temporal order. The simplest kind of temporal order is used when actions and events are told in the order in which they occur or occurred. This is known as chronological order. The temporal order of a text is established by the use of tenses, adverbials and adverbial clauses of time. The tenses and other time markers in this text are typical of narration.
a) Identify the tenses and explain why they are used.
b) Give examples of other constructions used to establish the temporal order of the text. 7. The author of a narrative text must decide on a story-teller, or narrator, through whose eyes the material is to be presented. We call this perspective the point of view of the narration. If the narrator is a character in the narrative, he will usually tell the story in the first person (= "first person narrative"). His perspective can only be limited. The narrator may, on the other hand, not himself be a character in the story, in which case he will tell the story in the third person. If he knows everything about the characters and the development of the action, his point of view is unlimited, Such a narratoir is "all-knowing" or omniscient.
a) Identify the point of view chosen by Sillitoe.
b) What is the general effect of this point of view on the reader?
c) Study the narrator's choice of vocabulary and explain how it adds to this effect. Give examples.

* see glossary