Mr Book and I had a moment of rare intimacy this morning. He decided, at very short notice, to take a half-day holiday from work, and by 9.30 we were faced with two and a half hours of child-free time.
We did what any married couple would do in those circumstances.
We emptied the garage.
Although we’ve lived in this house for over five years, we’ve never really taken our coats off. What was meant to be a practical stop-gap base while we floundered through the early years of parenting has, however, steadily morphed into a family home which we feel increasingly reluctant to leave and which we are – tentatively – starting to make our own.
The garage has been a repository for junk, and for all the pre-children belongings which we’ve never had the time, energy or courage to integrate into the house. Among them were crates and crates of books. Some of our paperbacks were already in the house, in bookshelves inconveniently wedged into bedrooms and even, in the case of a few handsome family heirlooms, behind glass in the sitting room. But the volumes we had as students: technical, academic, professional – many of them not even in English – have languished outside, along with others which we simply couldn’t fit in while we still had lots of baby equipment cluttering floors and surfaces.
So it was that I spent a gloriously happy morning re-acquainting myself with old friends I haven’t seen for half a decade.
Some, sadly, have gone to the tip. Especially when so much is available online, it seemed silly to keep 20 year old copies of German engineering manuals, or Spanish grammar workbooks. They weren’t the only ones which raised the question of books going out of date, though.
The find which made me squeal the most was a tattered little copy of “Everywoman’s Book of Love and Marriage and Family Life”, which once belonged to my gran. It doesn’t have a publication date, although its illustrations are classic 1930s. It was given to my gran on her marriage, and it is an absolute gem. Starting from the moment a girl gets that precious ring: “So you and the Dearest Man In the World are engaged? What joyous hopes cluster round your future!” it goes on to preparation for marriage, through Sex Relations (“Vital Information for Brides and Bridegrooms“), with even a helpful chapter on “Careers for Boys and Girls”:
Let us take boys first. Although girls also need definite occupations, your son’s career is really more important than your daughter’s….
It’s hilarious. Every paragraph, every sentence even, speaks of a world which has completely vanished. Doubtless there are still people who (explicitly or otherwise) espouse the same values, but the book’s confident didactic tone, its utter lack of self-consciousness, its certainty of itself and of the world in which it was written are things which I couldn’t imagine reading in anything today.
The chances are though that I’m wrong. That’s the thing with books. Between the lines are the assumptions, the things which go unsaid because the reader for whom the author is writing doesn’t need to be told them. That’s part of the joy of reading, and reading books which weren’t written for me at all.
In the same box was another old favourite, again from my gran. Her cousin lived in the United States, and used to send her copies of American books, one of which was an early copy of Gone With the Wind. Sadly, it’s falling apart now: dust jacket missing, spine gone, paper mottled and fragile. Nonetheless, I read it dozens of times as a teenager, greedily devouring the details of the old Deep South quite as much as Scarlett’s journey. I did consider buying a new copy and doubtless will have to someday, but alongside the sentimental value of the book, I treasure its authenticity. The story itself is, of course, shockingly racist, and the strands of slavery and segregation are too integral to the story and its setting ever to be removed in modern editions. My old copy, though, from Depression-era America, has vocabulary and terms which make me wonder if they would be printed today, and then to wonder whether they should be.
No1, who is 7, has recently discovered Famous Five, and his bedtime story at the moment involves a few pages of a perkily presented paperback found recently in a charity shop. The publishers have gone to the trouble of putting modern children on the cover, and updating prices and so on within the story, but the characters (naturally) are as ever they were. So it is that Anne is happily domestic; George, in her hatred of skirts and love of all things “boyish”, is an anachronism; and the cooking, shopping and cleaning for the group are assumed without hesitation to be the girls’ preserve. I find myself glossing over some of the comments, unable quite to bring myself to explain to my little boy quite why it is that his fictional counterparts are incapable of making their own beds.
Doubtless, I’m being overly precious. I don’t think that my parents censored my reading at all, and I remember puzzling over things (pre-decimal currency, boarding school etiquette, the seemingly omnipresent “consumption”) which were outwith my experience. I don’t think that the concept of political correctness had reached our particular corner of the suburban early 1980s, though, and so perhaps, to them, old-fashioned classics had the luxury of being just that.
As we start to fill up our walls with books, and as our children start to discover reading for pleasure, I would like nothing better for them to wander at will and discover the magic of other worlds for themselves. Part of me feels guiltily as though I should try to give them a filter for what they read, so that they see it through properly twenty-first century eyes. I think, though, I’d be better off letting them work it all out by themselves.
I’d love to know other people’s thoughts on this…