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Hope Estella Whitmore
The Million Meanings of Books

 

I don’t know if people have noticed this, but I find that other peoples’ bookshelves are always infinitely more interesting than mine. Other peoples’ books have a sheen of novelty and newness. If they’re old and shabby, this just adds to the excitement. If they’re dusty enough to start you coughing then all the better, if they have broken spines, white lines where they’ve been pulled too hard back, turned over corners, loose faded yellowish pages, amazinger and amazinger.

Looking through a friends bookcase for the first time contains an amazing thrill, the thrill of exploring new territory, of walking on ground of a different texture, through a forest of unfamiliar plants and animals. It’s almost like the beginning of a love affair, except this time you’re falling in love with a collection of books.
Every time I visit any friend’s house I greedily lap up their collection of books with my eyes. Many books I wouldn’t consider buying myself - a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine or a book on the role of women in 1950s America. Yet seeing these books in the context of a warm, softly lit living room, or along some ones landing in an antique dark wood bookcase, gives them a certain charisma that would make any subject suddenly irresistible. The books become pearls rattling silky between your fingers, diamonds catching the light of a flickering candle, a hint of perfume on a pure velvet dress.

When I was little I used to love staying at my Uncle and Aunt’s house in Cheshire, simply because they had so many bookcases. The room I slept in was small and cosy with orange painted walls and soft yellow silk lampshades, and my bed was soft and feathery. It had been my cousin’s room before she started university and many of her things were still there, including her lava lamp, which I could watch for hours, her collection of rag dolls, and all her books.
The books were against her wall in a blonde wood bookcase facing the bed. Many of them were about horses and dogs and girls who rode horses and wanted to be vets. She had gone to university to study vetinary medicine.

I never had any desire to be a vet, and I was frightened of horses. I’d occasionally pet Dolly, my cousin’s horse, over the orchard wall, but only with great trepidation, ready to run away if she took one step closer. All my books at home were about girls who ballet danced and wanted to become film stars or ballerinas or go on the stage. Perhaps my favourite childhood novel was Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield. Nevertheless, I found my cousin’s books fascinating and once stayed up a whole night to find out whether the young heroine of a novel would succeed in rescuing her pony, and I was with her every single word of the journey.

Recently I was on my way somewhere and I stayed with this aunt and uncle again. I hadn’t seen them in over eight years, and everything had changed. My Aunt’s elderly mother, who lived just up the road, and was constantly popping in with gifts of home baked cakes, had died. Her bungalow had been demolished and was being rebuilt as a holiday home. When I walked past it, I saw a pile of rubble, construction poles and a large sign saying ‘Nick Mort, Builder’. I shuddered and walked back to the house and back up the stairs to the bedroom with the orange walls, now the spare-room, as my cousin was married and didn’t come home that much anymore. I bent down next to the bookcase, and found that it was still full of the books I remembered, and I was grateful that hadn’t changed.

If there’s something thrilling about new books then there’s something terribly nostalgic and sad about revisiting the book cases of your childhood. You pull a book out of the shelf, and you look at it, and you remember when you first read it, and how much has changed between then and now, yet what is between the covers of the book remains constant.

For a long time I said I would never re read books because there are so many wonderful books in the world and life is so short, however recently I’ve found that revisiting books stirs up emotions in a way that a new book never can. If you read a book, any book, which you read ten years ago through the big eyes of childhood innocence, the book will not have changed but you will have, and the book will be different. The night after I walked past the ‘Nick Mort, Builder’sign, I reread the book about the girl and her pony, but this time I was reading with the eyes of a twenty-three-year-old, and the book seemed different.

Revisiting my parents book cases is similarly sad. You forget books when you’re away from them for a while only to remember when you see them. The books are intrinsically tied up with memories, with people. Some people say there’s nothing as evocative as a tune, some say a smell, a hint of perfume on a silk scarf perhaps or the gutters of the street where you grew up, with Proust it was a taste of cake that bought everything rushing back to him. I’d like to argue, however, that holding an old familiar book in your hand is the most evocative sensation of all. ‘Oh, there’s the book I read that summer I was going out with Toby’ you think as you finger a well-thumbed paper-back, and suddenly you’re back on a blustery beach in Scotland, sheltering from the wind against a grassy slope as you watch a distant figure tangled up in the strings of his kite, and you’ll flick through the book a little sadly before putting it away.

When you look at books you read years ago you know your own story, and how it unfolded at that time, and it seems to juxtapose with that of the characters of the novel. Maybe it’s egocentric of me, but sometimes when I’m reading a book I wonder if maybe, just maybe the central character of that book exists in some alternate universe and is reading a book about a girl just like me.

Yet perhaps the saddest and most beautiful thing is when you open a book and letter or a forgotten piece of writing falls out. One of my most cherished books is a gift from Toby, who is mentioned above. It’s a beautiful collection of Yeats poems. The book itself is a purple hard back but it has a smooth paper jacket. Someone who didn’t know the book had a dedication wouldn’t be able to find one, but it you slip off the book jacket and look inside it, just where the folded paper covers the book spine, you can see the words ‘to Hope, with love on your twentieth birthday’. It’s not a long dedication or a florid one but knowing that it’s so well hidden inside the cover of a book of poetry is what makes it special.

My Mother is a great keeper-of-things-in-books as well. It isn’t possible to open one of her books without a drawing by me or one of my siblings falling out. Normally these drawings are terrible scribbles we did when we were under three, yet my mother loves them, and these drawings, however irritating they are when you’re trying to read and they keep falling out all over the place, do give the books a certain individuality and stamps a personality on them which wasn’t quite there before.

My brother Dan and I had opposing attitudes about books. He liked them kept clean, perfect, pristine. Pages were not to be turned down, bookmarks were to be used at all times. If you borrowed one of Dan’s books you were not to open it too far in case you creased it’s spine. You were not able to take Dan’s books into the bath with you and get them wet and dog eared round the edges, and if one of his books had a label on saying something like ’buy two get one free’, the label stayed on the book, and you weren’t to pick at it around the edges, however much fun it was to do so. Dan’s books had to remain immaculate and if you read one then you had got to leave no traces. Eventually I gave up reading Dan’s books, it was too difficult and stressful. I was bound to spill diet coke over the covers or have a nose bleed all over the most crucial page in a novel or find some way to unwittingly absolutely destroy the book in Dan’s eyes and evoke his icy anger. Sometimes I would stroke the cover of a book which Dan had read and wondered if he had actually touched it to read it or taken it in by some magic process of osmosis. The books always looked to perfect to have been read.

I remember an incident when Dan had just bought a new book by one of his favourite authors. The book lay at the end of the table in the dining room, he wasn’t going to take it up to his bedroom until he’d finished his homework, it would be just too much temptation. When he was upstairs I was sat in the kitchen talking with my Mother when a neighbour came in, he was a tweedy fat old man and people said he drank too much. His movements were clumsy and exaggerated, and although we liked him, we did laugh at him behind his back.
This day he had been shooting and bought my Mother a brace of pheasants to pluck. As my Mother thanked him and took the pheasants through to the next room he glanced round, saw Dan’s book on the end of the table and picked it up. ‘Oh, I see you have the new Ian McEwan,’ he said, and with that he opened the book so wide the front and back cover touched and I heard the spine of the book snap. At that moment I saw Dan at the foot of the stairs and he looked livid.
I’ve always thought books are to be read, to be loved, to be valued, they’re things that people should leave their marks upon, however I do think books should be treated with respect. Like people books live and age and this is natural but books should not be treated unkindly or handled too roughly. Books shouldn’t be thrown or trod on or left under the bed, but neither should they be locked in glass cabinets in darkened rooms so as not to fade, because a book which is not read is one of the saddest things in this universe.

 

 

 

 

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