A couple of weeks back my wife and I were in England, summoned by my mother the centenarian to help her clear out all her books. “I won’t read them any more,” she said. A lot of them were volumes she must have acquired over the last couple of decades.
There was a two story rotating bookshelf of coffee table books about art and artists, ballet and ballet dancers, gardens, gardening and garden birds. A shelf of hardback autobiographies, mostly of TV personalities (Parkinson, Attenborough, Graham Norton, Terry Wogan). Several shelves of popular paperbacks – including all three volumes of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, definitely read, if not re-read.
There was a shelf of my own University books, mostly poetry and plays. I’d given them to her when she was studying for her English A Level as a mature student. (Mum left school to work when she was 15.) And finally, there was a shelf of old books that I remember from when I was a child. What memories they brought back!
Although she had to leave school very young, Mum came from a highly literate family. Her father fancied himself as a poet and essayist. (Though what he wrote seems very wooden to me.) And her mother, my beloved Grandma, read everything that came her way and introduced me to many authors, including HG Wells, John Wyndham and Olaf Stapledon.
So Mum had an eclectic collection which I read my way through much of when I was quite young. Now, sitting on the floor in her guest bedroom/storage space, occasionally sneezing with all the dust, I found them again.
That was the hardest part of the job, picking through these fragile old texts and packing them for the charity box. Many had been published during the war or soon after and had the Book Production War Economy Standard mark on their flyleaves. Discreetly I threw out a few I thought were in too poor a condition, or too out of date. (Mum’s famous-in-the-family coverless one volume encyclopedia from 1936, for example. The one with the entry referring to “Herr Hitler” as the Chancellor of Germany.)
As I filled the archive boxes bought for the task (10 of them in the end), I kept a little pile of books to one side that I kept coming back to, adding to and subtracting from. Books that just to look at, just to touch, brought back such powerful memories.
In the end I kept only three. Mum’s copy of John Lennon In His Own Write (published and presumably bought in 1964 – though this is the fifth edition); The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford, a copy I bought Mum as a birthday present in 1973 because she had talked about it as a book she’d loved as a child and lost; and The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald.
This last is the oldest copy of the three I kept. It was published in 1956 so is my senior by two years. I’ve just now finished re-reading it. Reliving Betty MacDonald’s experiences from 100 years ago, and at the same time my own memories of reading this same book. Sometime in 1969 or 1970 it must be. I’m lying on the fitted carpet in our front room as warm, morning sun falls through the bay window of our home in Hove.
And all the while I’m sitting, wrapped against the cold, on the balcony of our flat under a dull November sky here in Sweden.
If I disengage the nostalgia and look at The Egg and I as a piece of writing, I think it holds up surprisingly well. Mind you, the racism Betty MacDonald directs against native Americans was a surprise. I don’t remember it from when I first read the book 50+ years ago.
Do you know The Egg and I? I won’t spend words on it here, but if you’re interested you can follow this link to see its Wikipedia entry.
What about you? Are there books that hold for you much more than just the stories they contain? Do tell!
If you enjoyed this, perhaps you’d like to read Gail Aldwin on Walking and Writing or Sue Borgersen on Launching books during pandemic lockdowns.
We went through this with my father’s books, but only had one day to do so as we had animals at home in Wales that needed milking both ends of each day. My younger sister said that a family friend would deal with the books, so apart from one or two I picked out, all the others wernt through him, and did not realise what they should have done, many being first editions.
We went through it again reducing our 7,500 books to a mere 250 to move with us. One or two regrets, but we had mainly made the right choices. We sent a lot particularly of reference books, to local schools, some went to a telephone box where people would exchange books, a few went to dealers, some to auctions where they went for pretty well nothing.
My older son, because he travels so much and often needs his reference books, keeps his all on his phone, but I still like paper copies of books.
It’s hard to downsize.