A.A. Milne and I

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while, because I always think it’s fascinating to find out how people’s reading personalities arrived at their present status.  That’s one of the reasons I’ve loved doing My Life in Books on Stuck-in-a-Book, because it takes a look behind the blogs and sees the histories of the readers.

Well, one of the biggest influences in my reading life is A.A. Milne, who remains one of my favourite writers – and whom I discovered when I was about 16 or 17, and was the first adult author whom I really loved, reading more than twenty of his books in a year or two.  Yes, there is an irony that he takes this role when he is best known for his children’s books but, as I will go on to describe, in many ways he was the ideal author to take me from loving reading to being a truly committed bibliophile.

On the one hand, he was ideal simply because he is good.  There’s always a danger that the books we love when developing our taste turn out to lose their shine as we explore the literary world more, and that’s been my experience with a few books – but not with AAM. Everything from his early sketches to his autobiography still makes me laugh, think, or nod – the only exceptions being those few books I didn’t love much the first time around (such as Chloe Marr) and even some of these (Two People) have improved on re-visiting, rather than the reverse.  I know I can rely on Milne – I’ve just finished a re-read of Not That It Matters (1919; reviewed a couple of years ago) and a few weeks ago read his short play The Artist: A Duologue (1923). Just as lovely and light and fun as ever.

But it is not that alone which made him such a perfect introduction to the world of book-reading, book-hunting, and book-loving.  First off, he was astonishingly varied.  In loving one author, I could explore books as varied as silly house-party cricketing golfers in The Day’s Play etc., witty plays (The Dover Road), thoughtful plays (The Great Broxopp), hilarious novels (Mr. Pim Passes By), moving novels (Two People), a great work of pacifism (Peace With Honour), short stories (The Birthday Party), essays (By Way of Introduction), poetry (Behind the Lines), and autobiography – and children’s books, of course.  His range – particularly in form, but also in tone – is practically unbeaten in the 20th century, simply because there aren’t all that many spheres left unwritten.

So, that accounts for the writing.  But I don’t think I’d have become quite the bibliophile I am today if Milne’s work were either much better known or much less known.  The fact that I stumbled upon it at all was due to my school library having Christopher Milne’s The Enchanted Places, and my aunt Jacq being a fan of his and lending me books (for which I am ever grateful).  There can’t be all that many authors for whom there exists an autobiography, a family memoir (The Enchanted Places), and a brilliant biography (Ann Thwaite’s A.A. Milne: His Life).  There’s even a critical analysis of his work – Thomas Burnett Swann’s A.A. Milne (1971), which I managed to track down and read this year, after a decade of hunting.  And I gloriously disagreed with him for much of it (he hates Milne’s hilarious early stuff, and at one point seems to be quite genuinely shocked, and not at all ironic, when he notes that young people ‘preferred the irrelevancies of a Punch essayist to the nobilities of Lord Tennyson’; elsewhere he is more willing to commend, but he still has a curious dislike for much of Milne’s work which makes writing his book a curious choice. Still, I loved finding someone else who had read everything Milne wrote.)

And that’s the other thing – and perhaps the most important element in making me the bibliophile I’ve become – is that Milne isn’t better known.  If I’d been able to buy all his books in Waterstone’s, or for £1 a pop on Amazon, then I wouldn’t have caught the book-hunting bug.  A lot of Milne’s work can be tracked down easily, but a lot of it can’t – and especially couldn’t in 2003-4. A decade earlier, it would have been impossible. A decade later, it would have been easier – but as it was, I bought some things online, and learned the joy of hunting through secondhand bookshops the rest of the time.  Little did I know what a coup it was when I found Before The Flood for 75p in one of my first secondhand bookshops!  By the time I stumbled across For The Luncheon Interval, I knew how lucky I was to find it.

And the search is not yet over, even ten years and more later.  I’ve managed to find things as obscure as his pamphlet on humanism and War Aims Unlimited, but the collection of stories, limited to 600 copies of which he signed every single one?  The chances of me finding an affordable copy are slim – but it’s that sort of thing which keeps the joyous hunt alive.  You don’t get that buying the complete works of Shakespeare in one fell swoop.

So, AAM has stood me in good stead.  I wrote this post as a repository for many A Century of Books titles, but it’s also a celebration of an author who made me a besotted reader and an equally besotted book-hunter (and, yes, book-buyer).  And now, of course, I’d love to know which author or authors takes this role for you?

21 thoughts on “A.A. Milne and I

  • June 10, 2014 at 4:36 am

    AAM could not have a better advocate, Simon. I am so thankful that you introduced me to him properly. I've loved reading his books (still can't decide if his autobiography or Peace with Honour is my favourite) and long (fruitlessly, I suspect) for the day when I can see one of his plays staged. Should you ever open the dream publishing house we discussed recently, I vote for a complete collection of the Rabbits as one of your first books.

    • June 10, 2014 at 7:30 am

      And seeing you read them has been one of my greatest blogging joys, as you know!

      I don't even know whether to tell you this… but I was reading an annotated bibliography of AAM in the Bodleian, and it seems that a fair number of Rabbits sketches (or at least similar ones) were never published in book form… my publishing house is going to have to delve into Punch!

  • June 10, 2014 at 8:15 am

    What a lovely article Simon. Sadly I can't think of one single author who has had the same influence on me – although I have collected Beryl Bainbridge in a fairly serious way.

    • June 16, 2014 at 9:02 pm

      Thanks Annabel! I think these sorts of authors/experiences can only really come right at the beginning of a reading life, but plenty of other authors can be significant later on – like Beryl!

  • June 10, 2014 at 8:46 am

    A really insightful article! In the same vein, Roald Dahl's adult works have been my biggest influence (as well as the children's books he is most famous for). As an avid reader and short story writer, Dahl's humour still makes me laugh every time I read his works.

    Julia Molloy (talkingchapter@wordpress.com)

    • June 16, 2014 at 9:03 pm

      Thanks! And how interesting – I've read some Dahl (lots of children's books, some of the adult short stories) – are there scarce Dahls out there?

  • June 10, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Nobody in recent decades and that is to some extent due to the lack of available space for books. However when I was a teenager (17-20 ish) I sought out every book written by Colette that had been translated into English. Some of course were easy to find and indeed I didn't have to buy them because my parents already had them but others were indeed more challenging to locate. There is no doubt that Colette has been a masive influence on my life (and still is).

    • June 16, 2014 at 9:03 pm

      That does like a similarly formative experience – and something very special.

  • June 10, 2014 at 11:34 am

    I love the way you've unpacked how you've got to this point in your reading life – I don't think I could express so clearly what it was that lit – and sustained – the flame. I would tend to see more themes than individuals in my past reading history: one thing leads to another, so to speak. A lovely piece!

    • June 16, 2014 at 9:04 pm

      Thanks so much, Vicki! And that's interesting, about themes rather than individual authors – what sort of themes? I think I definitely had a general 1910s/20s/30s epiphany in my late teens.

  • June 10, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    Such a lovely piece, Simon, and thank you for sharing the tale of how you came to love books. I would agree with Dark Puss about the Colette books – I had the same experience in my early twenties with her works, and also with Italo Calvino and Virginia Woolf – it would be hard to pick which one had the most influence (and indeed I was collecting books much earlier than that). But those are the three authors who have very much shaped the reader I am.

    • June 10, 2014 at 6:33 pm

      Would you go as far as I did and say any of them shaped your life (or some important aspects of it?)

    • June 11, 2014 at 8:31 am

      Yes I would – I was completely obsessed with them and their work for long periods of time, so much so that they took over my life and certainly changed me as a person. They still affect me now! After reading Woolf I became completely immersed in her life and work, and the other Bloomsberries – and in fact a recent mention of a piece on Carrington in a recent Slightly Foxed issue brought it all flooding back again.

    • June 16, 2014 at 9:05 pm

      In a slightly different way, Virginia Woolf was also very life-changing for me – as it was through her (and Mrs Dalloway) that I discovered canonical literature could be truly wonderful, and I also found out how much I loved writing about books. But there's almost an overload of books by and about Woolf, nothing is at all rare!

  • June 10, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    Wonderful post, Simon. Though it makes me want to bring back your Questions-for-Simon post and ask you one more, which I don't think anybody did: Where do you put all your books? Is there an expanding warehouse in the back of the Vicar's Garden? As for Milne, I knew you loved him but had not an idea of what a major role he has played in your life. He has affected me profoundly too, but in a much narrower way, as I have read very little of his adult work (and must alter that). His children's books were among the first books I read, and although I read them to myself very young (three), my mother loved reading When We Were Very Young aloud. She attempted an English accent. I fell absolutely in love with the sound, my first taste of poetry, and the beautiful speech. It is what made me a passionate Anglophile, which you will have noticed I still am more than sixty years later. However, the author who has done most for me is Jane Austen, from whom I learned how to write, how to think and how to behave (while laughing), that's all! After her there are several other big ones but I will only echo Dark Puss in saying Colette was one of them…I remember I spent the entire year I was fifteen being Claudine.

    • June 11, 2014 at 11:20 am

      I spent an entire year (at about the same age) wishing I knew Claudine ;-)

    • June 12, 2014 at 10:27 am

      'Is there an expanding warehouse in the back of the Vicar's Garden?'
      I wish

    • June 16, 2014 at 9:07 pm

      Someone almost asked this question – the answer being that most of my books are in Somerset (maybe 3/4 of them), double-stacked in lots of bookcases. One day they will have to join me….

  • June 19, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Only just discovered your blog and I'm so thrilled about your love for A.A. Milne. I never even thought of him as more than a children's author (though really the WtheP stories are full of winks and nudges to adult readers), until I randomly discovered The Red House Mystery in a charity shop about a year ago – his only murder mystery, published in the 20s. As a fan of Agatha Christie style murder mysteries, and of Milne's writing style, I just had to buy it.. and I LOVED it! I think it might be one of my favourite books. Definitely worth a read if you haven't discovered it.

    This post has inspired me to read more of his works – thanks for a great post!


  • July 5, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Simon, which books of Milne's would you recommend to start with?

    I haven't commented before on your blog before but I wanted to let you know what an amazing resource its been, since I love exactly the same books you write about. Thanks for introducing Miss Hargreaves, Tove Jansson, Lolly Willowes and so many more.


    • July 5, 2014 at 4:00 pm

      Thanks so much for commenting, it's lovely to hear from you – and I'm thrilled that you've enjoyed those books!

      For funny, whimsical Milne, I recommend hunting down the collection Those Were The Days, or anything from it (The Day's Play, The Sunny Side, The Holiday Round and… another one I can't remember right now.) For more serious Milne, Two People was recently reprinted by Capuchin Classics.

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