I haven’t read any Lee Child novels but a lot of my friends have. I post this from the Daily Telegraph by way of compliment to them. They have often seemed to be somewhat embarrassed by their enthusiasm about him and never recommended that I should read one. Perhaps they should have done. Maybe I’ll even try one now.
In the space of a few weeks there’s going to be both a new Jack Reacher film (starring Tom Cruise, out on Friday) and a new Jack Reacher book (out November 7). I doubt I’ll bother with the film; Cruise, as everyone knows, is ludicrously miscast. But I’ll definitely be reading the book.Lee Child’s thrillers are monstrously popular. They sell at the rate of a copy every 20 seconds. Admittedly not everyone’s a fan. “I can’t understand the mentality of one who is awaiting the next Lee Child,” Harold Pinter said. Sadly it’s a little too late to convert him. But for the benefit of anyone who shares the great man’s bafflement, I’ll try to explain.
I love the Jack Reacher thrillers because they remind me of childhood reading. By that, I don’t mean their language is so simple that a child could read it – although that’s certainly true. Then again, it’s also true of Ernest Hemingway, and that doesn’t make For Whom the Bell Tolls a bad book. Similarly, I don’t mean that Jack Reacher is a child’s idea of a hero – although that again is true, in the sense that he’s a big strong muscle-clad hardman who beats up the bad guys, shoots guns and invariably gets the girl.
What I mean by “childhood reading” is that the Jack Reacher books absorb me: absorb me the way books in childhood did. Remember how, when you were little, a story could swallow you whole: you fell headlong into it, like Alice falling into Wonderland.
That doesn’t happen so much, when you grow up. Sure, you can love a book, you can admire it, you can be awed by its complexity and lyricism, you can feel enriched by its insights into the human condition. But it’s rare to be gripped so tightly that you become oblivious to all but your hunger to know what happens next.
More broadly, in fact, I’d say this is one of the main differences between childhood and adulthood. For hours on end, to the exclusion of all other thought, children can absorb themselves utterly in a single, simple pleasure: playing with Lego, painting a picture, building a dam in a stream, reading an adventure story. Adults lose that ability. We’re trapped in reality.
Ask Philip Larkin. His poem A Study of Reading Habits charts the way our attitudes to books change as we grow up. As children, we read ravenously, because books make us feel as if we are their heroes. (“It was worth ruining my eyes/ To know I could still keep cool,/ And deal out the old right hook/ To dirty dogs twice my size.” Jack Reacher fans will know that feeling.)
Novels for grown-ups, however, can be deflatingly realistic, a glum reminder of life’s disappointments. (“The dude/ Who lets the girl down before/ The hero arrives, the chap/ Who’s yellow and keeps the store/ Seem far too familiar.”) Which may be one reason so many adults lose patience with fiction. (“Get stewed:/ Books are a load of crap.”)
When you’re a child, you instinctively place your free hand over the final paragraphs of a chapter, to stop your eyes sneaking ahead and spoiling the surprise to come. I find myself doing that when I read a Jack Reacher. I can’t pay any higher compliment than that.