The books we read shape the way we live

The books we read, the stories we immerse ourselves in, give us an imagination for how to live the rest of our lives. So, when I come across one that shows me a better way to live, I cherish it.

My 10-year-old and I just finished Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome’s 1930 novel about children sailing boats and going on adventures in England’s Lake District during their summer holiday. It’s the first in a series of 12 books which extend the adventures of the band of children and their friends and which have continued to be popular in Britain and elsewhere.

What strikes me about the books is that the stories take place during a unique period in English-speaking culture. All falling within the years 1929-1934, there is a distinctive pacing, attention to detail, and engagement with technology and the natural world that has since disappeared.

During this time period, telephones, cars, and motor boats existed, but they hadn’t yet invaded our lives to the degree that they have now. Because of this, life is experienced at a much slower pace than it is now. And our faster paced lives are reflected in the way books are written now. We’re so afraid of boredom that our books speed from one scene to the next.

Ransome’s early-1930s characters know nothing of our pace. And neither does Ransome as an author. He lingers over details that we would rush past. How to keep the coals a fire alive overnight. How to learn to swim. How to sail. How to fill in a ship’s log. What it’s like to experience a thunderstorm in a homemade tent.

There’s a leisureliness to these stories and yet they don’t drag. Ransome knew how to soak in his setting and his circumstance, because that’s how the world worked back then. All of the technologies that rule our world today had been conceived, but they exercised no domination. Yet. That time was coming soon, but it hadn’t yet arrived.

Along with inviting us into a world not dominated by technology, these books are an immersion in naturalism and imagination. Ransome obviously loved the created world. There are times when he comes across, like Teddy Roosevelt, as a proto-conservationist. He loves this world and shares that love with us, without the doom and gloom of modern environmentalism.

And his characters engage in vivid imaginations. In fact, three of the books in the series are completely made up by the children themselves. And in others, they are constantly referring to themselves and their surroundings through the eyes of imagination. The British world having just gone through the Age of Exploration, they imagine themselves as explorers and their surroundings as the great unknown. It’s this interweaving of imagination with everyday life that gives the series its magic.

My oldest child loved the books and read them all and reread some of them several times. And when we spent time on a 99-acre farm on British Columbia’s Galiano Island, he was in his Swallows and Amazon’s element. When we went sailing there, he was Captain Emett and thrilling at it with all the imagination Ransome had awoken within him.

But it’s been tough to get the rest of my kids to read these gems. These are slow reads compared with the many other fast reads out there to entice them.

But we need stories like these. Stories that slow us down. Stories that immerse us in the details of life. Stories that get us outside, immersed in creation. Stories that live in a technological world but aren’t dominated by it. Stories that engage the imagination. Stories that show us another way to live.