When I was growing up, in the middle of the rural West Wales countryside, the library was the most important place in my life. It was a time where I could be captivated equally by a surreptitiously-read Mills & Boon, or the detailed descriptions of re-setting a broken arm in a First Aid book. It was there, in that spirit of discovery, that I first picked up Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a book that ignited and empowered my imagination not just through childhood, but into adulthood, too. Jules Verne’s sense of possibility never left me.
The journey in Centre of the Earth sends Professor Otto Lidenbrock, his nephew Axel, and their guide, Hans Bjelke, across Iceland, to the volcano they would go down in order to attempt to reach the centre of the earth. The terrain immediately compelled me. Forget the centre of the earth; Iceland itself, as Verne described it, was terrifying, beautiful and unearthly before the team had gone even a centimetre underneath the surface. Iceland in the 1800s really must have seemed like another place to European readers, and when it takes the team several weeks to reach the volcano, they are weeks camping and navigating a strange, unfamiliar land. For years afterwards, I dreamed of exploring Iceland.
When I did finally make it, we sped across the landscape in our rental car, making light work of the protagonist’s arduous journey and stopping to marvel at geysers and waterfalls. We walked on black-sanded beaches and stayed in an isolated cabin just a few metres from the sea. Beforehand, at Reykjavik’s Faxa Bay, I looked over to try and see the volcano crater from the book, Snæfellsjökull, but it was hard to tell through the haze if it was the volcano that had captured my imagination as a child.
Then, one day we decided we wanted to go swimming in some hot springs we’d seen on a map. We hiked for miles through grey fog and sulphur-scented steam, and for the first time I was a little afraid, up close and personal with the landscape. It wasn’t surprising to me that such a place would have inspired a novel about another world under the surface. If our own could be as new and strange as this, what else could be imagined? What could be waiting to be found?
It was this sense – that there was something more – which the book inspired in me more important than the physical longing for Iceland. Though the events of Journey to the Centre of the Earth were totally fantastical, the breadth of imagination and curiosity got me. What if there could be dinosaurs underneath the ground? What if you could go down a volcano, actually? I realised for the first time that in fiction, anything could be possible, if you made it so. Even as a child, I knew that the centre of the earth was only magma. But even now, I still sometimes feel convinced that it could be otherwise.
I think we can forget, as adults, the pure pleasure of adventure in reading, and I wish I could go back to the sense of absorption and possibility I felt, from the very beginning, when Verne’s protagonists set to deciphering the mysterious runic inscription that would send them on their adventure.
It takes me back to a time when, even in the middle of nowhere, adventure felt possible; when my sister and I would build ‘flying machines’ out of cardboard and explain solemnly to my mum that we were going to fly perhaps to Canada, and not to expect us back for dinner. It takes me back to the first time I wrote a story as a child, in which my pet rabbits could talk and went on adventures. Then, after a (brief) blip in my teens where I tried to write realistic, ‘gritty’ fiction, I returned to my own versions of the fantastical, the strange, and the full of possibility. And I have Verne to thank for that.
Illustration by Michelle Pereira
This promises to be a winter like no other, with more time to spend cosy indoors and curled up with a brilliant book. Who needs work parties? Who needs packed pubs and late night trains, shivering in the cold? Stay inside, throw on something comfortable and have a book party all your own with these must-read page turners of 2020. You'll regret nothing.
Give the book-lover in your life something special with one of these gorgeously illustrated stories, clothbound classics or photography collections. Or, you know, just treat yourself.