About a month ago one of my brothers delivered about 20 boxes and bags of books from my mother’s house. I had volunteered to sort them so others could focus on the rest of her stuff. She died at the end of last year at the grand age of 94. That’s about 90 years of reading. And therefore I received an awful lot of books.
The love of reading
I will always be grateful to my mother for her encouragement to read. Other parents, I have been told, would chide their children when they had their head in a book, saying things like, ‘stop wasting time’, or ‘go and do something useful instead of lounging around’. My mother was the opposite. If you went to her saying in that dragging way, ‘I’m boor-ed’ her first suggestion was always to find a book.
Among the bags and boxes are all the Alison Utterly stories of Fuzzipeg, Squirrel, naughty Hare and Little Grey Rabbit. Who could forget what RSVP meant at the bottom of an invitation? (Rat Shan’t Visit Party, which is always reassuring to find out, don’t you think?)
When I got older she made good suggestions to me: two I particularly appreciated, were Katherine by Anya Seaton (1954) and Desirée by Annemarie Selinko (1951). Both featured strong women in historical settings, exercising power and judgement behind strong men, in this case John of Gaunt and Napoleon Bonaparte.
There were books all over the house where I grew up. I remember that both my parents had piles on their beside tables. And they were members of the Reprint Society, also known as the World Book Club. This brought hardback copies of recent fiction to people by post. The club thrived in the 1950s when it had 200,000 members. It disappeared as I had known it in 1966. There are probably more than 30 from that source that she kept to the end of her life.
I had hoped that a rather nicely bound book, published in 1946 by Vita Sackville-West called The Eagle and the Dove would turn out to be a novel, but it was not to be. It turned out to be a comparison of two Sts Teresas, annotated by my Great Aunt Helen Davies. I had visited her one or twice in the 1960s or 70s, and have a lovely collection of French verse from her.
Many surprises and delights
It was in January (the link to the post is here) that I mentioned I wanted to read At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald (1871). I had been given a copy by my Grandfather on my 9thbirthday. But I have no idea where my copy went. How pleased I was to come across an edition given to my mother by her grandmother in 1937 when she would have been 13. Now I have her copy to re-read.
There is an early edition of The Secret Garden, which I reviewed in January. You can find the link here. It also has illustrations by Charles Robinson.
I like to see old penguin editions and have inherited many of these. It’s a bit of a décor cliché, but I like having them around.
So what am I going to do with all these books? Before they arrived I thought that it would be simple. I would keep the few I wanted and give the rest to charity.
But now they are here, what are the criteria by which I decide? Books are so much more than the text, or even the physical arrangement of text, paper, dust cover, font, white space etc etc. Books carry so much significance.
Take the leather bound copy of a prize for my Grandfather for his holiday project in 1912. Or the copies of books I should have read but haven’t yet, like Kim by Rudyard Kipling. Or those inscribed by people who I loved. Or those that are beautiful objects, especially those with leather bindings. No, actually, you can’t take them.
And those which I shall pass on? I have to decide whether they go to Oxfam, as we have a good local Oxfam bookshop. Or to the local second hand shop which I also like to support.
And there are all the books I cannot decide what to do with, the don’t knows.
And where to keep them? Even when I am sorting them they need more space than the footprint of the bags and boxes they arrived in, for I have to find other bags or boxes while I go through them. And then I have to sit down and gaze at the inscription or begin reading, or just remember…
So my house has uneven piles of books, and some in bags for disposal and the boxes that still remain. And I wonder, how many copies of Shirley or Keats’s poems do you need? Fewer than I have in my house at the moment.
Books my mother gave me. A lifetime of exploring before they get passed on again. And in tribute, here again is a picture of my mother reading The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda Armitage to my grandson, taken about 7 years ago. All together now: CLEAR OFF, YOU VARMINTS!