In his second volume of memoirs, Ways of Escape (1980), Graham Greene observed that "Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation." During his long career, the popular British author exorcised his demons in over two-dozen novels, four collections of short stories, and several volumes of essays and travel writings.
In this brief narrative from the opening of the essay "The Lost Childhood" (published in 1947), Greene recalls "the dangerous moment" when he first discovered that he could read.
from The Lost Childhood
by Graham Greene
Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back.
But in childhood all books are books of divination, telling us about the future, and like the fortune-teller who sees a long journey in the cards or death by water they influence the future. I suppose that is why books excited us so much. What do we ever get nowadays from reading to equal the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years? Of course I should be interested to hear that a new novel by Mr. E.M. Forster was going to appear this spring, but I could never compare that mild expectation of civilized pleasure with the missed heartbeat, the appalled glee I felt when I found on a library shelf a novel by Richard Haggard, Percy Westerman, Captain Brereton or Stanley Weyman which I had not read before. It is in those early years that I would look for the crisis, the moment when life took a new slant in its journey towards death.
I remember distinctly the suddenness with which a key turned in a lock and I found I could read--not just the sentences in a reading book with the syllables coupled like railway carriages, but a real book. It was paper-covered with the picture of a boy, bound and gagged, dangling at the end of a rope inside a well with the water rising above his waist--an adventure of Dixon Brett, detective. All a long summer holiday I kept my secret, as I believed: I did not want anybody to know that I could read. I suppose I half consciously realized even then that this was the dangerous moment. I was safe so long as I could not read--the wheels had not begun to turn, but now the future stood around on bookshelves everywhere waiting for the child to choose--the life of a chartered accountant perhaps, a colonial civil servant, a planter in China, a steady job in a bank, happiness and misery, eventually one particular form of death, for surely we choose our death much as we choose our job. It grows out of our acts and our evasions, out of our fears and out of our moments of courage. I suppose my mother must have discovered my secret, for on the journey home I was presented for the train with another real book, a copy of Ballantyne's Coral Island with only a single picture to look at, a coloured frontispiece. But I would admit nothing. All the long journey I stared at the one picture and never opened the book.
Selected Works by Graham Greene
- Brighton Rock, novel (1938)
- The Heart of the Matter, novel (1940)
- The Power and the Glory, novel (1940)
- The Ministry of Fear, novel (1943)
- The Third Man, novel (1950)
- The End of the Affair, novel (1951)
- The Lost Childhood and Other Essays (1951)
- The Quiet American, novel (1955)
- Our Man in Havana, novel (1958)
- A Burnt-Out Case, novel (1960)
- Collected Essays (1969)
- A Sort of Life, memoir (1971)
- Lord Rochester's Monkey: Being the Life of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, biography (1974)
- The Human Factor, novel (1978)
- Ways of Escape, memoir (1980)
- The Collected Plays (2002)
- Complete Short Stories (2005)
First published in 1947, the essay "The Lost Childhood" by Graham Greene appears in The Lost Childhood and Other Essays (1951) and also Collected Essays (The Bodley Head, 1969).