She gets it about the books

Matt F: “So many books…”
Walkin’ Dave S:”…so few chairs.”

I almost never buy books anymore. So many books have been given to me that I have yet to read, and I have in times past bought so many books that I have yet to read, that to willfully acquire more of them seems sort of obscene. I’m a slow reader, and whereas in my bachelor life I knocked down a John Barth in a delicious week or two of sprawling in various positions across various couches while a variety of cats — mine and others’ — occasionally broke the silence by waking up on the back of the sofa behind my head and beginning to lick their paws, and whereas my helpmeet shares with me a fondness for Reading in Bed, which we indulged as happily as two mice before we had children — I say, whereas all the foregoing, nowadays we can’t read in bed without turning a light on and waking our baby, whose crib is in the same room, and there are none of those expansive days of doing nothing but read, not even in a winter as bleak as this past one was.

So I read on the bus a little (inbound only — on the way home it puts me instantly to sleep) and of an evening after the girls are down I might put off the dishes for awhile and reread a few pages of the book I’m reading in an attempt to find where I quit reading or fell asleep last time. This results in a real page advance of about .72 pages.

Also, my reading adventures are composed of such quixotic investigations into things I just happened to hear about that I am often unsure whether I really want to own a book that I very much want to get my hands on. Case in point: a book I’m fitfully poking at by Albion Tourgée called “Fool’s Errand”, a novel about the Reconstruction period written just a decade or so after the end of the War Between the States. I happened recently to see Tourgée’s name mentioned derisively in the “libretto” of D. W. Griffith’s ridiculous (but historically much praised) silent movie “Birth of a Nation.” Tourgée offers a searingly honest appraisal of “what’s up with the South” after spending years there trying to help in a reconstruction that he eventually decided was a failure. I’ll go to the library for these books, and then if I like them I’ll add them to a list of books I want to buy someday, just to have. 

The Spooky Hares look like they're listening to some whispering of the books.

But none of this is what I wanted to tell you. The fact is, I used to buy lots of books. I bought a lot of books that I had already read and would not read again, in fact. When I got hip to the whole idea of the worth of a first edition first printing with an untorn dust-jacket with a price in the front flap (no price means it’s possibly a worthless book-club edition, which can also be sniffed out by looking for a small sometimes square impression on the back lower right corner of the cloth), I began collecting my favorite books by my favorite authors in out-of-print hardback. I was abetted in this addiction by eBay, which made it possible for me to get some of them very reasonably, and by abebooks.com, which enabled me to find any book instantly, anywhere in the world. It used to be that you went down to Shorey’s Book Store in the Pike Place Market and asked them to do a search on an out-of-print book, and they took your info (on paper, with a pencil), and called you two years later with the jubilant announcement that your book had been found in Upper Volta and that it was waiting for you at the shop. Of course, Shorey’s is now gone and so is Upper Volta. 

Even before this, I loved old hardbacks. I have a few on my shelf that I inherited from my mother, whose family was big on books. These, along with a few of the treasures I collected later, survived the Purges. A few years ago something turned for me and I gave away or sold, in spasms, most of my hardback collection — having to box it all up several times in my adult life while friends helping me move rubbed their aching backs and said things like “what, more boxes of books?” did a lot to help this season arrive. I hardly even notice these old friends anymore (I mean the books), so often has my eye scanned past them looking for something new on my shelf to read, maybe something I forgot to read, or started but found that its time had not yet arrived.

But again, none of this is what I wanted to tell you. I have old books around, I guess is what I’m saying. Mara is not yet able (or willing, perhaps) to read on her own, and we’re not hurrying her. Every day she gets closer. She falls asleep every night amid heaps of both paperback and hardback books that she pulls into her bed and “reads” by nightlight light. She loves stories and loves being read to. She wrote a few simple words on a pad the other day with a pencil, and got them mostly right (“piano” she spelled “PANO” but that is a perfectly rational orthography at her stage, when the distinction between a letter’s spoken name — “pee” — and the sound it makes is still not clear).

Children's, what's left of sci-fi and fantasy, the Barth I couldn't part with (cut me some slack, I got rid of half of it!) and a few other treasures.

A week or two ago she brought me a dusty old hardcover book from a small rampart of old tomes held up by the two Spooky Hares on a sidetable in our living room and asked me to read it. There were some color plates in it that showed children larking about, so she knew it would be her sort of thing, and she was apparently in one of those moods for something new that I can so relate to. The book was “The Little Lame Prince” a book that we had read as a class when I was in First or Second grade at Bellevue Christian School. A decade and a half ago, before you could find everything instantly online, I stumbled on this book in an antique store, and, remembering how magical it seemed to me and how its reading had shaped so strongly the geography of fantasy and fairy stories in my mind, I pounced on it. A few years later I read it and found that it made me kind of gag a little. It was really both saccharine and didactic. I put it on the shelf never bothering to read the other stories compiled in the same volume by the same author, identified mysteriously as “Miss Mulock”.

I didn’t want to read “The Little Lame Prince” to her so I started in on “The Adventures of a Brownie”, which are six tales of the relationship between a passel of farm kids and a strange, tiny brown magical man, sort of an imp. They’re kinda spooky, like old fairy tales tend to be, but Mara has a pretty high threshhold for things that creep other kids out, and also for the kind of Old World language (and subject matter) that one finds in children’s books with color plates in them:

Never were such fine chickens as my last brood!”
“I thought they were ducklings.”
“How you catch me up, you rude old man!…” 

So we read the half dozen adventures and Mara loved them.

Tonight when I was getting her into bed and it was time for books, she asked if we had any more “old books”. If we did, she said, it might be “something that would interest me.” Inside me my heart did a little gleesome flippety flop, and I thought “she gets it”. She’ll grow up in a world of Kindles and Nooks and Direct Hyperverbal Storyness Implantation*, and that’s all perhaps as it should be… but she loves old books. She sees them as special, containing special interest for her. 

An oldie but goodie, and illustrations by Pauline Baynes! Click to see the entire cover larger.

After rubbing my chin theatrically for a moment, I preceded her downstairs to the bookshelf where sit my hardback editions of “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld” and “The Gammage Cup” and LeGuin’s Earthsea books and the Bles editions of the Narnia stories and the 1965 first edition (alas not first impression) hardback box set of Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy (with maps) — all awaiting my daughters’ interest in due time, and pulled down Tolkien’s “Farmer Giles of Ham”, a thin volume copiously adorned with illustrations by that magnificent expositor of the Narnia tales, the inimitable Pauline Baynes. We took it upstairs and I read her several pages, not quite remembering what parts may require some careful explaining, but anyway journeying again, this time with my daughter, into a land of magic. I have waited so long. 

*I just made that up, but you never know…    

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8 Responses to “She gets it about the books”


  1. 1 Louis Chirillo April 21, 2011 at 01:33

    Father and daughter, iunctus in plures hardcover libri (or so the latin translator tells me you and Mara are united in hardcover books). I too love the hardcovers. When I lived on Capitol Hill, I used to frequent Filippi’s Books and search for books on Seattle history. There is a certain strength and durabilty – a reassurance of a hardcover book that you just can’t get from a paperback.

    And now, I must ask: “helpmeet” This word. What does it mean? Where did it come from? You are referring to your wife, yes?

    • 2 Matt April 21, 2011 at 08:24

      I am suspicious of your Latin, sir. As for “helpmeet”, the fact that you hadn’t heard this word got me worried and I did some research (okay, I googled it). I remembered this word from the King James Bible and from older literature in general. Many people now incorrectly say “helpmate” (or rather, helpmate is a new derivative that still refers to your spouse). I had a dim memory that the root “meet” meant right or good or proper. And in fact it turns out I was pretty near correct. The phrase, as I knew, refers to Eve, the help God provided to Adam, and the phrase is God gave Adam “an help meet for him”, in other words a help suitable for him (everyone else in the Garden of Eden had hooves or feathers at that time, so old Adam was a lonely boy). From this noun-adjective phrase came the single noun “helpmeet”. I LOVE English!! It’s so full of stuff like that.

      Never got to Filippi’s and you haven’t lived here for donkeys ears. Is it still there?

      • 3 Louis Chirillo April 22, 2011 at 01:45

        It should not worry you that I was unfamiliar with the word, helpmeet. There are many words in the English language with which I am unfamiliar, and I thank you for the lesson. As for Filippi’s, it is my understanding that it is no longer there. It was a wonderful place to spend a rainy day.

  2. 4 Mom April 21, 2011 at 20:32

    I can so relate to the lack of reading at the present time. One’s brain can turn to mush at certain times in one’s life. You must be very eager for Mara to begin reading on her owwn. What a world she will discover, huh.

    • 5 Matt April 21, 2011 at 22:05

      Under the circumstances, Mom, no one can expect you to be keeping up with the New York Times bestseller list, or any other list. The best thing about good books is they’ll wait for you, eh? Yes, we’re eager for Mara to read, but there’s also a sweetness in her dependency on our nearness and attention for the books to come alive for her. I think she loves that interaction right now more than she wants intellectual independence.

  3. 6 marni April 21, 2011 at 20:33

    Narnia, Narnia, Narnia!

    • 7 Matt April 21, 2011 at 22:14

      A fan, I see. 🙂 You know, Philip Pullman of His Dark Materials called the Narnia books the most “poisonous” children’s books he’d ever read, because the Pevensy kids didn’t have to grow up and deal with adult issues infringing on their faith, they all just died in a train wreck in the end and went to Narnia and lived happily ever after, which he said was a cop out. He also points out that Susan, the older girl, was raked over the coals by Lewis for wanting to wear lipstick and basically be attractive, like her coming into womanhood was the reason she stopped being able to go to Narnia (until she died, of course). It’s easy to see that he has some valid points. I’m still rather fond, but I’m fond more of the books, and the telling, and the language, and the icons. Whether it all holds morally isn’t really so important to me in books that are so far back in my heart. Seeing the movies made me realize how limited the moral story really is there. In the movies it’s more clear that it all boils down to who has the most firepower, which hadn’t really bothered me in the books. In the books, the “battles” were allegorical and more of a wiping-up than an actual climax. But I wonder if your comment really warranted all this exposition?


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