Friday, May 24, 2013

What are you reading for the rest of your life?

 Painting in a window in Montparnasse.
I am again awake at 3:30 in the morning but my periods of sleep are getting longer. I have been home two full days dealing with family, retirement, and books. Yesterday, I sorted through four large boxes of my parents' books. Some were very old and some appeared to have never been read. Throwing books in a bin on a street corner is not acceptable to me. Dampness and mold will destroy any value that the books may have to somebody else. Monsieur and I have both worked in libraries where people have donated "old smellies".  A polite "thank-you" and a late  night visit to the dumpster is the usual course of action.

I actually love handling books. Some of these old books had faint pencil numbers that I wrote when I was a little girl playing library. Some of these books bore the names of strangers, some dated back to the early 20th century. Mum had written names and dates in some of these books but on checking publication dates, I found that she was not always accurate.

In my teen girl years, I read a lot of historical fiction. Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, Norah Lofts (who by the way were the same person), Mazo de la Roche, Frances Parkinson Keyes... My love of history was fostered by those authors whose works provided a rich world for a timid and repressed teen.

In about 1968, when I was sixteen, I became aware that my country, Canada, was developing its own cultural identity and literature. During this period, I devoured the New Canadian Literature series. Rudy  Wiebe, Frederick Philip Grove, Hugh MacLennan and Margaret Laurence were some of my favourite authors of the time. They depicted Mennonite life on the prairies, the struggles between English and French in Québec and the lives of women in Ontario, Manitoba and Vancouver. I made a decision to try to read a much of my nation's literature as possible.

This decision pretty much coincided with the adoption of bilingualism and biculturalism as official policy of Canada. The policy struck a note with a slightly alienated young woman who treasured her few drops of French-Canadian blood. You can not ignore Anne Hébert, Gabrielle Roy, Marie-Claire Blais, Michel Tremblay or Yves Beauchemin if you are going to understand French Canada. These authors achieved distinction throughout the world. I decided that it was essential, as a student of Canadian literature, to read in French.

When I was twenty years old, I made the decision that university was not where I wanted to be. I found family life restrictive and I wanted to experience the "real world. I did not require official certification as a reader as I had been one for all of my life. With the arrogance of my twenty years, I created my own syllabus. Although I was a very well-read file clerk, I decided that I did not want to become a very old well-read file clerk.

Yesterday, I dealt with father's life in books. In some ways, my own tastes resemble his. I handled the well-thumbed books and the unread coffee table books. My dad loved knowledge for its own sake. When I was very little, he taught me the Prime Ministers of Canada. We both could be a bit pedantic. Until his death, he remembered most of his Latin and often reminded us of the fact. I kept his copy of Virgil from his high school days. Sometimes, he was the only person who had any clue what I was talking about. My last conversation with him was over the telephone when I told him about visiting the spot where Captain Cook had observed the Transit of Venus. Dad loved sea stories and war stories. I suspect, he had a lot of the adventurer in him.

I sorted the books into boxes, inking out names and dates and memories. It made me very sad that my father's literary journey had come to an end and that no one but me wanted to share it. I will call up a former colleague who is a member of Friends of the Library and offer the more interesting books for the Book Sale.

In my storage are my own boxes which contain mostly the books from years as a student of literature.
My daughter,who struggles with print, does not share my interest and Monsieur ( who does not whine) is grumbling about storage again. In the last two years, I have given up my work identity and watched the decline and death of my father. I have always believed that a personal library is the chronicle of a life. When the time is right, I know that I will be able to revisit my own stories and to release them. But I know for sure that now is not the time!



3 comments:

  1. This strikes a few chords! I similarly left university the first time 'round, also felt a need to read in French, and although I didn't become a librarian, my childhood and teen years were pretty library-centred (I volunteered as a page in the Children's Department at 14, got a paid part-time position there at 15 that I worked at for several years and loved). I can still remember the names of all the Children's librarians (our small city had a wealth of these, lucky us!).
    And now, looking at my own considerable library, having just helped dispose of my mom's lifetime accumulation, I begin to wonder where all these books might end up. . .

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  2. I worked as a Library Assistant for several years before I became a teacher-librarian. The love of books and libraries has been a thread throughout my life. Monsieur was the Library Director of one of the libraries that I worked in. My parents' books have been part of my life forever. Mum just got rid of the first book that I ever read. It was published in 1918. Children's books are so much more attractive now. I do wonder what I will do with the offending boxes.

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  3. This was very moving. My love of books came from my father. He had an extensive library when he passed away which my brothers and I split up to keep. Some of his most special books are moldy smelling, but I still keep them for sentimental reasons, in a separate wooden trunk. I still remember our Sundays together, visiting the huge library in downtown Toronto. We would just browse and then sit to read.

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