What a joy to be able to read and to disappear into another world, to enjoy adventures without moving, to lap up beautiful prose and eloquent sentences and to live in someone else’s life for a time. Earlier this week I was at a book launch with John Connelly presenting his latest Charlie Parker book. John is such an engaging man and that got me to thinking about the influence of books on my life, hence this blog!
I see life as a series of chapters as we all have a book within us. Not necessarily one we want to write but, as our lives unfold there are stories to tell, to relive and to savour, to forget and to bury…but always stories. Simon and Garfunkel put it well ” ..and you read your Emily Dickinson and I my Robert Frost and we mark our place with bookmarks, to measure what we ‘ve lost” – it resonates with me as I so often don’t want to finish a book I am enjoying and yet know that what I’ve read is now past and in a sense, the mystery is lost. So it is with life – what is past cannot be changed – in a sense lost to all but our memories.
If I look back I can put my life into chapters: My first chapter in the UK, my next chapter in Johannesburg , my marriage chapter(s), my Cape Town chapters – and so on. Most of my chapters have been marked by books. My parents loved reading and so there were always books in the house. Bookshelves overflowing with art and history and Readers Digest compendiums, (yes, that far back). Classics abounded and I got books for birthdays, holidays, Christmas, any time of the year- a book was a good gift. I immersed myself in reading and devoured the usual, ‘Katy’, ‘Heidi and Peter’, (perhaps that’s why I ended up marrying a Swiss!) Louisa May Alcott, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and simply loved Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Anderson.
As a child my parents used to send me to London to stay with my maternal Granny and Grandpa and the aunts who were still at home. One of the aunts had longed to be a teacher but money was tight so I was her pupil ( willingly). During the holidays I was set all sorts of tests! To learn a favourite paragraph, to review parts of the book I was reading, to describe to my aunt what the story was about, to copy sentences I liked. As an eight year old I loved it and my aunt took me on excursions where there were always stories to tell. My grandparents were Russian immigrants; my grandmother completely illiterate but with a prodigious memory; my grandfather a cultured, artistic and well read, cabinet maker. We would sit around the big dinner table in the living room and the stories would flow and I was encouraged to take part.
As I grew up books were always my solace, The Diary of Anne Frank was my ‘bible’ when I was 13 and was read and re-read over and over again. Everyone knew that I loved books; so much so that when I left England my friends gave me “The Forsyte Saga” by John Galsworthy – all nine books – as a going away present! To this day I have them on my bookshelf, along with Herman Hesse, Kahlil Gibran, Margaret Drabble, complete works of Bernard Shaw and my school book “Herodotus” and more – hauled with me from England and not to be parted with, probably antiquities now! The books that have had a deep impression on me over the years remain on my bookshelf as part of my passages though life.
Oh, and just in case you think I was an academic whizz…nothing could be further from the truth…I was pretty wild in my teens, with many a hangover to prove it, my GCE results were fairly disappointing and I did not pursue an illustriously intellectual career ! In fact intellectual would never be used to describe me! But I have marked my places in life with the books that were important to me at that time, and kept those books.
I have read voraciously over the last few weeks, mostly to take the edge of what was happening in reality and when I finally picked up ” The story of Edgar Sawtelle ” by David Wroblewski I knew this was another ‘keeper’. A debut novel (and sadly, looks as if Wroblewski has not written anything else – yet). On the New York Times bestseller list in 2008 and recommended by Oprah, I simply loved this glorious read on such an unusual subject. Briefly it is about a family in Wisconsin who breed dogs and have developed their own breed over generations. The son is highly intelligent but mute (he can hear but cannot speak – a bit like the dogs). The book is in turn a thriller, ghost story and a wonderful saga. The dogs, and particularly one litter, feature strongly and it is fascinating to read about training techniques ( none of which are boring) and the natural affinity that the boy and his dogs have. What seems to be idyllic all too soon becomes tragedy and the story is beautifully crafted, the writing is poetic but (in my opinion) never overdone and the story grips you from the beginning to destructive end. Make sure you have tissues when you read it! A book that will stay in my collection.
Now I am reading ‘Will Grayson, Will Grayson’ by John Green, the author of ‘The fault in our stars, and will be picking up on a number of books crying out from my bookshelf to be read. So a new chapter has opened in my life and I am intrigued as to which books will be the markers.