Just recently I bought a book, a real book by a local author. It has a lovely cover, and pages I can turn; a book whose place I can mark with a beautiful book mark; one I can leave on my reading chair or leave face down on my coffee table, ready for me to pick up and resume one of my favourite occupations; and most importantly, beautiful prose that transports me to the places and times the author presents to me.
So does this signal an unusual or groundbreaking occasion? Certainly not, but over the past few years, as I ran out of room for bookcases I have been downloading some books to my iPad. In particular, those books that I know I shall read once but probably never again. Not the good friends that I turn to again and again, when I am happy or sad, nostalgic, or just because I love them and I want to sink into their pages one more time.
Books have been a part of my life since early childhood. Every night my mother or father would read me to sleep and even then I had my favourites. I often recall my father, tired from a long day at work, turning over two pages at once, and my reminder to him, “you missed a page dad”.
My mother was a member of the School of Arts lending library in the city and every fortnight I would accompany her to the library, in Ann Street, and we would walk up the long staircase and into a dark, cavernous two storey-high treasury of books. In my imagination I am there now, seeing those books, smelling that peculiar but distinctive library smell, and casting a hopeful eye at the children’s library that stood at the top of the stairs outside the adult section. When I was five years old, my mother enrolled me in that children’s library and I remember my excitement at having my own library card and being able to borrow books in my own right – my love affair with books and writing had begun.
When I was about 10 years old my mother gave me her Anne books – L.M. Montgomery’s chronicle beginning with Anne of Green Gables. I quickly and irrevocably became lost in the world of ‘Anne with an e’ (as an Ann with no e, I forgave her that one thing), a world of kindred spirits, the lake of shining waters, the cherry tree outside her window that quickly became the Snow Queen. Everything and everywhere was scope for the imagination, and who could forget her terror-filled walk through the Haunted Wood and how ‘bitterly did she regret the license she had given to her imagination’.
But most of all, Anne’s world was a world of beauty, so eloquently stated by Montgomery:
Anne’s beauty-loving eyes lingered on it all, taking everything greedily in; she had looked on so many unlovely places in her life, poor child; but this was as lovely as anything she had ever dreamed.
My love for the Anne books has never diminished and even now, so many years later, I will often pluck one of them off the shelf and immerse myself in the world of that little red-haired orphan. And I still weep with her when Matthew dies!
My high school years introduced me to Shakespeare – The Merchant of Venice – and the wonderful monologues of Shylock:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimension, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us do we not bleed?
The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities with the wonderful opening lines:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…….
Written in 1859 about the French Revolution, these words could well ring true of our times today.
I moved on to the regency novels of Georgette Heyer, George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Middlemarch, Anthony Trollope’s six Palliser novels with his unforgettable characters: Plantagenet and Glencora Palliser; Phineas Finn and Madam Max. The wonderful Barchester Chronicles and the gentle warden, Mr Harding, his ambitious son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly, the devious machinations of Mrs Proudie and the obsequious Mr Slope. My university studies encompassed a vast amount of reading in a double major in Australian and American History and a major in Australian and American literature – Patrick White, Thea Astley, Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies and the tragedy unfolding in Squeaker’s Mate, the poetry and short stories of Henry Kendall and Banjo Paterson; Richard’s Wright’s Native Son – the tragic Bigger Thomas; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the story of Hester Prynn – a fallen woman in the Calvinist-Puritan society of Boston, generally regarded as the first great work of American fiction; and Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick.
I could not survive in a world without books and I remember a moment of great pleasure upon my last visit to the United States, standing in the main reading room of the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the pinnacle of libraries.
I recall reading Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. Regarded as one of his best works, the novel presents a future American society where books are outlawed and “firemen” burn any that are found. Montag, a disillusioned fireman with a secret stash of books, joins an outlaw group who preserve books by memorising their contents and then destroying them. The books cannot be forgotten, because each person in the group is a living version of them. Montag himself becomes the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.
So I wonder, what book would I preserve and memorise? Would it be Anne of Green Gables, or A Tale of Two Cities? Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd? Or John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara or Divine Beauty? Georgette Heyer’s Venetia? The poetry of Denise Levertov or Mary Oliver; the beautiful spiritual writing of Margaret Silf; Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple? A play by Alice Childress? I don’t know! How could I choose? My books are my friends and their words inform me and enthral me; they touch my heart and nourish my soul; they give me scope for imagination and take me out of the ordinary and into the beautiful.
What book would you choose?