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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

March 2015

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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

The Origins of My Love Affair with Books

Writers are joining the pseudo MEME started by Joe Beernink and Jason Black. I was so inspired by reading these two posts that I have to jump in and add my own story to the collection.

I have three older sisters (by 10 or more years), so when I came along our house was already full of books. I remember odd bits of storybooks, but very little specific about them. The Velveteen Rabbit was on the shelf as was some book I remember as being particularly intriguing with “Peter” in the title. But I don’t remember much more than the cover. The first book I remember poring over was the fascinating History of the New World—one of my sisters’ textbooks. There were pictures with lengthy captions, and that is what I read. I might have been 7.

But the real influence on my love was from two books. The first, a literary mystery by Celia Fremlin titled The Hours Before Dawn. It won an Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1960. It was the first book I remember reading because I chose to read it. No one told me I had to. It was way above my reading and maturity level and was a subject (sleep deprived mother afraid she is becoming psychotic) with which I had no familiarity. I remember, though, being completely caught up in the atmosphere and feeling of the story. I could imagine what it must feel like going for hours without sleep and seeing things that might or might not have been there. And then the fire. The boarder leaping from the window thinking she had stolen the baby and dying with an empty bundle of blankets in her arms. Vindication for the mother. I have not read that book in 40 years, but the imagery is still fresh in my mind. I thought that if I ever wrote a book I would want to make people feel the way that book made me feel. I was 12 years old. The book was shelved right next to Saul Bellow’s Herzog which I started and put down numerous times. The two books, however, were so closely associated in my mind that until I looked it up I thought Bellow had written The Hours Before Dawn!

The other book that was important to me is still within five feet of where I’m sitting. It is a book of poetry titled simply The Poems of Robert Browning. published first in 1896 by Thomas Y. Crowell, this is a 1924 edition with a biographical sketch by Charlotte Porter. It was my father’s—one of a dozen books of poetry that he kept. Once again, the poetry was way above my head when I first read it. I suffered through piecing the story together of “How they brought the news from Ghent to Aix.” But the romantic in my heart can still quote the opening stanza of “Cristina.”

She should never have looked at me if she meant I should not love her!
There are plenty … men, you call such, I suppose … she may discover
All her soul to, if she pleases, and yet leave much as she found them:
But I’m not so, and she knew it when she fixed me, glancing round them.

Yes, I loved the language and the poetry—the complexity of the structure that taught me that the poem was not about the rhyme. But none of that was what drew me to this volume. This book is so much more. The cover, tattered and the edged chewed by an unknown rodent is a soft brown suede/leather. The front is tooled with an ornate pastoral scene and in a banner over the top in simple gold embossed letters are the words “Robt. Browning.” That’s all. No title of the work. The title mentioned above appears on the title page inside. No, picking up this book was like picking up the secret journal—the life—of a single man who was embodied in this book.

Inside, marbled bookpaper lines the cover and flyleaf. It is so tattered now that you can see the mesh that was used to glue the sewn pages together at the spine. After two blank pages, you find an engraving of Browning with a tissue cover paper that is printed with the words “Robert Browning at 77, 1889 (His last photograph).” The paper on which the body of the book is printed is almost as thin as Bible paper, but coarser in texture. The typesetting of the foreword and biographical sketch is cramped and occasionally the letters are broken. The poetry, however, has generous margins preserving the poet’s line length and phrasing except in the very wordy lines like those of “Cristina.”

I fell in love with the book, not the wonderful words within it. It was joined on my shelf by other works from my father’s library and not a few that I collected myself. Burns, Tennyson, Milton, even Elbert Hubbard! All in soft leather or deer hide covers with intricate tooling. All dating from about 1880 to 1930. All handset with lead type and printed a page at a time on small presses.

I didn’t really start reading for pleasure until I read The Hobbit in 1967. But my love of books was already firmly ingrained. Books contained the essence of the author, wrapped in elegance and art. Meant to be held, admired, and cooed over like a lover in your embrace.

Such am I: the secret’s mine now! She has lost me, I have gained her;
Her soul’s mine: and thus, grown perfect, I shall pass my life’s remainder.
Life will just hold out the proving both our powers, alone and blended:
And then, come next life quickly! This world’s use will have been ended.

From Jason: I loved Joe Beernink’s blog on this subject so much I’m writing this response. I think it ought to become a meme among us writer-types. So to anyone reading this, I’ll make you this deal: post your own reaction on your blog, post a comment here with a link to your blog, and I’ll do my best to drive readers your way through my own social media network. Please share. Even if you don’t have a blog, give us your formative book experiences in the comments. I’d love to hear other people’s stories of how their literary love affairs began.

And so shall I.

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