One day not long before my fifteenth birthday, my appendix burst and I nearly died. As I lay recovering in hospital, still wondering what had happened to me, my mother was despatched to buy books. For someone who knew so little about the matter, she did remarkably well—and not so well. It was a brave effort because she found my reading preferences utterly incomprehensible and I can only imagine how she stood in the newsagency puzzling over the array of paperbacks on the shelves. On reflection though, maybe she made it easy for herself by choosing the three with the most garish covers.
One volume was Timeaus and Critias by Plato in which I found myself completely out of my depth and unable to understand any of it. But I was entranced by the cover—a detail from Raphael's School of Athens featuring Plato and Aristotle in hearty discussion—there was something about those bearded, thoughtful men that stuck, and they became my role model for the rest of my life. Oddly enough, when I was able to read the book years later, it turned out to be one of the most influential books of my life, since it told of Solon of Athens, who invented Democracy, and who was the perpetrator of the Legend of Atlantis.
The second was The Crisis, by Winston Churchill. There are two famous Winston Churchills—the lesser one was an American author of the 19th Century and The Crisis was his best book. Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, it tells of two men, a northerner and a southerner, who vie for the attention of a southern belle who wasn't named Scarlet O'Hara but should have been. Guess who won. Well, with a moniker like Clarence Colfax, the Confederate had no chance.
It was pretty boring, actually. Too much fretting about the war down on the plantation and far too little from the heat of the battle. If the book had been more like its cover, I'd have liked it, but alas, like most book covers in those days, it was a downright lie. The whole thing was rather more like the internal illustrations.
Carpathian Castle, her third choice, is a strange Gothic piece by Jules Verne, said to have been in a long, deep, mysterious melancholy at the time. The suspicion is that he lost an unknown mistress just before he wrote it. The book ends up with an amusing scientific solution to a ghost and vampire story except there's no vampire. The villainous count is one Franz de Telek; the hero a Transylvanian sheep-herder named Nic Deck; the ghost a dead opera singer named La Stilla whom Telek apparently brings back to life. The scientific trickery involved in the solution wouldn't surprise anyone these days when such things are commonplace but at the time Verne wrote it, such devices were hardly known and the ending was thought to be amazing. An outstanding effort from a time when he was thought to be in decline.