I remember reading my first James Bond book. I was probably in the seventh or eighth grade, so it would have been around 1981 or 1982. The son of some friends of my parents had been "purging" his unwanted items and I ended up with a box of books (I always loved the books, sometimes to the point of great irritation for my parents). The box contained 1960s era paperbacks - some war books (The Battle of Stalingrad, that sort of thing), virtually all of the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan Triumphant is really cool, and the Warlord of Mars books are preposterous but great fun) and an entire set of Ian Fleming's Bond books.
Much like most kids of my generation, I thought Bond was a pretty big deal. The promise of watching a Bond movie on TV (back in the days before VCRs, DVDs, and all that sort of thing) was met with great anticipation. For some reason, we never got to watch all of On His Majesty's Secret Service; to this day, I don't know why. But Bond, his one liners, his cool bravado and of course his babes meant my brother and I couldn't wait to watch the next one. Which also meant that I was pretty excited about catching up with the original.
But what I found was quite a bit different than what I expected. Bond was still cool, and he still got the babes, but the general tone was far more serious than the cinematic version. Bond was, well, an ice-cold killer. I started with Casino Royale, the first book in the series (always a good place to start), and at the end of the book a female Russian agent dies rather than kill James, because she's in love with him. When he discovers that she's dead, his reaction is: "Good. The bitch is dead."
To me, at least, that scene defines the essence of Bond, not the gadgets or the gimmicks. He was a hard, cold man willing to do what was necessary, and even when he did manage to fall in love he didn't really change. Oh, Fleming made a point to try to show Bond had something human about him (for example, in The Spy that Loved Me, when he rescues a woman from some evil thugs, or On His Majesty's Secret Service, with the pitch of "Bond in love"), but he was always able to shut out those emotions when they might have interfered with his job. As everyone knows, Bond spawned a host of imitators and parodies in a crowded cottage industry of Cold War nervousness and angst (from television's Get Smart, I Spy and others to cinematic versions like Dean Martin as Matt Helm, James Coburn's Flint, David Niven as Bond in a comedic version of Casino Royale which lacked "the bitch" and her death scene, and Mike Myers' more recent turn as Austin Powers). Many of those - and even some of the cinematic renditions of Bond himself - focused more on stunts, gadgets, and pretty girls than anything else.