Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Books We Leave Behind

Today, on Twitter (no, it's not all for trolls and airheads) I was alerted to this article in The Australian, an exquisitely beautiful piece by bookseller Michelle Coxall that resonated with me and got me thinking about the books that form such a crucial part of our personal history.

Those of us who love to browse secondhand bookshops get an extra thrill from finding an inscription inside the cover - "To our dear daughter, Dorothy, on the occasion of your graduation - Dec. 1964" or better still, a fading card slipped in between the pages "Dear Bruce, I hope this helps to get you better soon",  or "Fay, in memory of the good times".

The amazing Cath Crowley captured the spirit of all this in her recent, wonderful Y.A. novel Words in Deep Blue , a romance set in a bookstore where readers leave notes, poems and letters for friends, strangers and lovers. Reviewer Emily Mead described it as ' A love letter to books, bookshops and words' which just about captures its essence perfectly.
But Michelle Coxall's evocative piece brought back an early experience of mine which a psychiatrist friend assured me is now embedded in my 'residual traumata', never to be erased.

From our country high school in northern NSW, I and 18 of my classmates won commonwealth scholarships (those were the days) and were packed off on a bus to the University of New England, there to live in residence for 4 years and learn some of the things we hadn't already learned on Greenmount Beach. However, when I came home for the first term holidays it was to find that my mother had given away all my books. 'They were just kids' books,' she said, puzzled, 'what would you still want them for?'

In her defence, she was orphaned at birth, and in all our days together I never saw her put the slightest value on any material possession of any sort. Gifts that we saved up to buy her she gave away to the first person who admired them, completely unable to understand why we might be upset.

So yes, there it is, and likely to remain so, in my residual traumata, the loss of all my childhood books to someone called 'the Ebzery kids' as I recall, so I guess they at least went to a home of some sort.

There was a collection of Enid Blytons - Enid, to whom I still attribute my undying love of books and reading - a pile of Schoolgirls' Own Library magazines, the whole set of Mallory Towers adventures, another set of books by Lorna Hill, all set in Sadlers Wells (A Dream of Sadlers Wells, Veronica at Sadlers Wells) and an early pre-school favourite, Professor Pringle's Pink Powder.

Most precious of all was a very strange hard-back book unearthed from somewhere by an elderly uncle, I think, and given to me, called In the Land of the Talking Trees. I was way too young to read it or understand it but the full page colour pictures scared the living daylights out of me every time I opened it - and we know how much fun that is when you're eight.
My dear spouse, having heard the sorry tale of my lost books more than he probably needed to, set about finding a copy of it and - at great expense to the management - succeeded. I can't tell you the emotions it brought back when I opened the parcel. I pick it up now and what comes flooding back to me is the terrible shock, the emptiness, of coming home from UNE after that first term and finding my meagre little bookshelves irretrievably empty.

I love to share my books now. Read this, I say, it's sublime. Of some books we say, my friends and I, read it and pass it on; I don't want it back. Others I all but count the days until they're returned. I will always let you know which is expected.

They're an integral part of us, our own books, as essential and as loved as anything we might possess. I'm still trying to understand that if someone has never owned anything much it might be incomprehensible to hang onto things and not set them free for someone else to enjoy. Setting free someone else's possessions is something else altogether. But I'm trying to understand that as well.

No success yet, but I'm trying.


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