Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cherished Books

Other than family stuff – photos, old bibles, lockets, journals, my grandfather’s varsity letter, etc. – the objects that I cherish most are my books. Some have been with me for so long, I cannot imagine being separated from them, and they have become so much more than their text. For example, I LOVE The Count of Monte Cristo, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter…(I could go on here), but I could easily change my edition for another. As I was writing that, I realized maybe that isn’t true. When I first read To Kill A Mockingbird, I was using my mom’s edition – a 1960s trade paperback with yellowed pages. Over the years, I found myself a newer copy. One year…I think it was my last semester in college, I wanted to re-read it. I absolutely could not stand it, and I recognized that it wasn’t the text, it was the edition. I couldn’t read the newer copy. So, I searched out the same edition that my mom had, and started to read that one, and it was fine. Same old book. So, in some instances I am tied to a particular edition, but not any one copy of the edition. It didn’t matter if it was my mom’s copy or the one I found…it was the same.

That is not true with some other books. They become objects. I was scanning my book shelf last night, thinking of this. Now there are some texts I couldn’t do without: The Great Gatsby, The Awakening. They are underlined and dog-eared. But for some reason, they aren’t really objects. The ones that are have something different about them…not just the underlining. Sometimes it’s the notes on the page. Sometimes it’s the history. Here’s my list:

--War Birds – Diary of an Unknown Aviator. I have never read this book, and probably never will. On the inside is written, “To Howard from Michael, 1928.” Howard and Michael were my grandfather’s older brothers. Howard would have been 16 when Michael gave him the book. He died nine years later of TB in a sanitarium, at the age of 25. There was always something romantic about that, and about the book as well.

--Faust Part 1 (Trans. By David Luke). I had to read this for a college course. Then, one night near the end of the semester, my roommates and I had a party. It was a strange day…classes had been canceled because of snow, so I started drinking at lunch. It was the last week I was going to be in college, and I had a German friend and a German roommate who were going home. We all ate tortellini and drank beer. I continued drinking the rest of the day. Then, the party. The doorbell rings, and I answer it. I knew there was this other German exchange student coming…but I had never met him. I open the door, and it was instant. “You must be Dominik.” Oh my. God knows how much we drank that night. But let’s just say that Dominik and I, by maybe 11 o'clock were sitting on the chair, holding hands and discussing Faust. We were going through the whole thing. Next to Margareta’s speech about her heart being broken or whatever, I wrote the german translation (“Meine ruh’ ist hin/Meine herz ist schwer ”…), and stuff is underlined and circled and highlighted. I did all that after that night. Suddenly, Faust meant so much more to me. I have two other translations and the German text, but it’s this one that we sat discussing that night that I could never part with.

--Kerouac by Ann Charters. This biography and I have an odd history. I graduated a semester earlier than my friends, so I went to visit them on the weekends. Mostly because Dominik (see above) was there. So, during the week I was working a professional job and on the weekends, going back to college and drinking like a fish. This book followed me throughout those few months that I was doing this. One night, I swear I went to bed (my friends had an extra room) in my pjs…everything was fine. I woke up at 5 a.m. on the bathroom floor in my underwear wrapped in a bath towel, using this book as a pillow. I have no idea how I got there. This book, along with Women of the Third Reich brought me a lot of comfort during that time, and not just as something to rest my head on.

--Bible Talks With Children, published 1889. This might seem an odd one for me to pick, and it is. It was my grandmother's, and I don’t know whose it was before her. When I was little, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother's house. In fact, most of my childhood memories are of being at her house playing games, watching tv, sitting on the swing, eating peanut butter sandwiches, etc. One of those memories includes reading this book at bedtime. What makes it special is that the illustrations are all wood engravings, most by Gustave Dore. I LOVE wood engravings and wood cuts…in fact, its one of my favorite forms of art. Dore, Durer, etc. FABULOUS stuff. Anyway, this book was probably the beginning of my interest in that. It’s got all the great bible stories that are appropriate for children: the murder of Abel, the expulsion of Hagar, Lot fleeing Sodom, Achan being stoned to death (one of the more memorable engravings), Death on a Pale Horse. GREAT stuff for kids to look at before they go to bed. No wonder I have so many nightmares. A lot of the engravings can be seen here. But I love it because it’s a book I associate, surprisingly in a good way, with all the time I spent with my grandparents.

The English Patient. I read this book initially because of the movie. And of course I only wanted to see the movie because Ralph Fiennes was in it. Not the type of guy 15 year olds typically dream about, but I wasn’t a typical 15 year-old. He was serious, brooding, mysterious. The English Patient was one of the first “adult” book I ever read…it marked the point of distinction between what I read as a child and what I would read as an adult. I’ve come back to it countless times since, and each time I see myself in different places in the book. When I first read it I was head over heels about someone and saw myself as Almasy…I got where he was coming from. When I was in the Dominik situation (see above), and didn’t want to admit to myself that we weren’t going to be together beyond the end of the semester (he was going back to Germany), I read it and saw us clearly as Hana and Kip. The scene at the end where Kip is back in India and has a daughter and something she does reminds him of Hana…that thought really brought me to accept the situation for what it was and move on. A few years later, I had clearly become Katherine Clifton, in a situation I don’t want to discuss here (though one that turned out much better than the one in the novel). This book has helped me through a lot of stuff. Beyond that, Ondaatje is an amazing writer, and I cannot praise this novel enough for its poetry. It’s another one that I’ve beat up, underlined, dog-eared, and otherwise made my own.

and, of course,

On the Road. I bought this book 13 years ago. It’s so beat up that I had to put packing tape all over it so the cover wouldn’t fall off. I have taken this book EVERYWHERE with me…after all, I think I’ve read it 10 times or so. The bookmark that’s in it is a candy wrapper from 12th grade (1998 probably). I got my senior pictures taken with it. It pages smell like incense because for a long time I kept all my incense on top of the book. There are notes and underlining and all the good stuff that comes with a well loved book. I don’t know where I’d be without it. Expect many more posts about Kerouac coming up...I'm working on a potentially massive project.

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