< JG Ballard Early Readings
JG Ballard's Early Reading

By David Pringle

(This list is in roughly chronological order, up until the age of 25, by which time JGB was beginning to write his own first published stories. Apart from the last two, the quotations below are taken from the essay by Ballard in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser, Bloomsbury, 1992. However, not all the books listed here are mentioned there -- many of them have been gleaned from other Ballard essays, interviews, letters, and from passing mentions or quotations in his fiction.)

"I can no longer remember my nursery reading, though my mother, once a schoolteacher, fortunately had taught me to read before I entered school at the age of five. ... The Headmaster was a ferocious English clergyman whose preferred bible was Kennedy's Latin Primer. From the age of six we were terrorized through two hours of Latin a day..."

A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh, and The House at Pooh Corner
B. H. Kennedy, Kennedy's Latin Primer
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking-Glass
J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up

"Not only can I remember, half a century later, my first readings of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, but I can sense quite clearly my feelings at the time -- all the wide-eyed excitement of a seven-year-old..."

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

"Later, when I was seven or eight, came The Arabian Nights, Hans Andersen and the Grimm brothers, anthologies of Victorian ghost stories and tales of terror, illustrated with threatening, Beardsley-like drawings that projected an inner world as weird as the surrealists'. Looking back on my childhood reading, I'm struck by how frightening most of it was, and I'm glad that my own children were never exposed to those gruesome tales and eerie coloured plates with their Pre-Raphaelite gloom, unearthly complexions and haunted infants with almost autistic stares. The overbearing moralistic tone was explicit in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, a masterpiece in its bizarre way, but one of the most unpleasant works of fiction I have ever read..."

Anon., The Arabian Nights
Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales
The Brothers Grimm, Fairy Tales
Charles Kingsley, The Water Babies
S. T. Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

"I remember reading children's editions of Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe and Swift's Gulliver's Travels at the same time as American comics and magazines. Alice, the Red Queen and Man Friday crowded a mental landscape also occupied by Superman, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. My favourite American comic strip was Terry and the Pirates, a wonderful Oriental farrago of Chinese warlords, dragon ladies and antique pagodas..."

G. A. Henty, boys' books
American comic strips and comic books: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Superman, Batman
Milton Caniff, Terry and the Pirates
Charles Kingsley, Westward Ho!
Anon., "Tom O'Bedlam's Song"
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Poems
John Keats, Poems

"Left to myself for long periods, I read everything I could find -- not only American comics, but Time, Life, Saturday Evening Post and the New Yorker. At the same time, I read the childhood classics -- Peter Pan, the Pooh books and the genuinely strange William series, with their Ionesco-like picture of an oddly empty middle-class England. Without being able to identify exactly what, I knew that something was missing, and in due course received a large shock when, in 1946, I discovered the invisible class who constituted three-quarters of the population but never appeared in the Chums and Boy's Own Paper annuals."

British boys' story-papers (bound annual volumes): Chums, and The Boy's Own Paper
Richmal Crompton, Just-William, More William, and sequels
American magazines: Time, Life, The Reader's Digest, The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Liberty, The New Yorker, Vogue
James Elroy Flecker, The Golden Road to Samarkand

"I was interned by the Japanese [in 1942]... The 2,000 internees carried with them into the camp a substantial library that circulated from cubicle to cubicle, bunk to bunk, and was my first exposure to adult fiction -- popular American bestsellers, Reader's Digest condensed books, Somerset Maugham and Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck and H. G. Wells."

W. Somerset Maugham, short stories and novels
H. G. Wells, short stories and novels
Sinclair Lewis, novels
John Steinbeck, novels and novellas
William Shakespeare, The Tempest and other plays
Edgar Allan Poe, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque
Short-story writers: Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, Anton Chekhov

"Like many people of my age, my reading of the great works of western literature was over by the time I was twenty. In the three or four years of my late teens I devoured an entire library of classic and modern fiction, from Cervantes to Kafka, Jane Austen to Camus, often at the rate of a novel a day... I'm sure that the ground-plan of my imagination was drawn long before I went up to Cambridge in 1949."

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Herman Melville, Moby Dick (unfinished?)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground and other works
Joseph Conrad, novels and stories
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, and other works on psychology
Carl Gustav Jung, works on psychology
Wilfred Trotter, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War

"The Hollywood films that kept hope alive -- Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, The Big Sleep and White Heat -- seemed to form a continuum with the novels of Hemingway and Nathanael West, Kafka and Camus..."

Albert Camus, L'Etranger (The Outsider) and La Peste (The Plague)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, and short stories
Jean-Paul Sartre, La Nausée (Nausea) and other novels and plays
Ernest Hemingway, novels and Collected Short Stories
Franz Kafka, The Trial, The Castle, Metamorphosis and other stories
Edward Glover, War, Sadism and Pacifism
Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
T. S. Eliot, Early Poems and The Waste Land
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep and other novels
British magazines: Horizon, Lilliput
Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
W. H. Auden, Poems

"Ulysses overwhelmed me when I read it in the sixth form, and from then on there seemed to be no point in writing anything that didn't follow doggedly on the heels of Joyce's masterpiece. It was certainly the wrong model for me..."

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Ape and Essence, and others
W. H. Auden & Christopher Isherwood, The Ascent of F6 and other plays
Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One
Maurice Richardson, The Exploits of Engelbrecht
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Nigel Balchin, Lord, I Was Afraid
Wyndham Lewis, the "Human Age" trilogy
Joris-Karl Huysmans, A Rebours (Against Nature)
Arthur Rimbaud, Le Bateau Livre and other poems
Henry Gray, Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body

"From the 1950s and 1960s I remember The White Goddess by Robert Graves, Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers, Durrell's Justine and Dali's Secret Life, then Heller's Catch-22 and, above all, the novels of William Burroughs -- The Naked Lunch restored my faith in the novel at a time, the heyday of C. P. Snow, Anthony Powell and Kingsley Amis, when it had begun to flag."

Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft
Robert Graves, King Jesus, and The White Goddess
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers
Salvador Dali, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali
Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle, and The Wound and the Bow
Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night)
Pauline Reage, The Story of O
[Lawrence Durrell, Joseph Heller, and of course William S. Burroughs, he would have read after the age of 25.]

"I was sent to the RCAF flight-training base at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, which is quite a place to be. ... that's where I discovered science fiction, in the magazine racks of the airbase cafeteria, and I've never looked back since!" (From "The Profession of Science Fiction, 26: From Shanghai to Shepperton," Foundation no. 24, February 1982.)

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man
American science-fiction magazines: Galaxy, Fantastic Universe, and others
Richard Matheson, Third from the Sun
Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants
Bernard Wolfe, Limbo '90
William Golding, The Lord of the Flies
Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter, and other novels
Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell

"... 'Prima Belladonna' [in December 1956] was the first piece of fiction that I ever published, and I can still remember the thrill of receiving the cheque for £8. At last I was a professional writer, and my wife and I celebrated by using the money to buy our baby son a new pram. Pushing it past the department stores in Chiswick High Street, a hundred ideas in my head, I felt that I had found the philosopher's stone." (From "Sculptors Who Carve the Clouds," The Independent, 24th October 1992.)