Oh Nancy, Nancy!

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When I was 4, I fell in love for the first time. The object of my affections was Jemima the rag-doll from Play School. That was a trial run. I was 7 or 8 when I got my first serious crush. She was an older woman: red-haired, wholesome, adventurous and intelligent. She was 16. She was always 16. Her name was Nancy. My love for her – like the young Julian Barnes’s love for an older woman – did a great deal to shape my life.

The Nancy Drew mysteries (I didn’t know, then, that ‘mystery’ is what Americans call a detective story) were the first series of books to which I became completely addicted. And, since there were dozens of them, it seemed as if I could never run out – useful, for a child who weekly exhausted his borrowing limit at Dorking Library.

My grandfather got into the habit, for a bit, of buying me one a week. Whenever I had a book token, it was into the bookshop at the top of the main street (I can’t for the life of me remember its name) that I would go. Oh! the anticipation of a fresh one, a fresh mystery, smelling of new paperback, picked off the long shelf of Nancy Drew books in the children’s section and taken home in a crisp paper bag.

That long shelf was itself a part of the pleasure. I grew a long shelf of my own. Before I piqued myself on my row of white-spined Picador books in my teens, or the black-spined battalion of Penguin Classics (a purple stripe across the top for Latin or Greek; red for English; yellow for Russian or French; and the odd showy green if you had the Bhagavad Gita), my pride was in a lengthening collection of uniform Nancy Drew mysteries, filed in numerical order. It was a great long stripe of primrose.

The editions matter, the physical books matter, when you’re reading with that intensity: they are part of the memory. This was when Armada was publishing them in the UK in a uniform design that one collector I’ve found online has called the ‘yellow box’ editions. The covers w

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About the contributor

Sam Leith is the literary editor of the Spectator and the author of You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama and Write to the Point: How to be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page.

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