Books With Dapples
The wild is screaming, the bushfire smoke sifting like flour over the ridges, the wombats have retreated to their burrows away from flying branches. I’ve retreated too, into a calm and familiar book.
To John Galsworthy’s Swan Song, one of the Forsythe Saga series. I love the last three books best, with Dimpy as the heroine. They are gentle books, full of 1930’s British values like doing your bit with quiet manners and a cup of tea, and always the possibility of cake.
The cover is faded red, the pages are yellow with dapples, and the price is still on the cover (8 shillings!). Dad must have bought it, possibly before I was born. Like most of the books I read when I was a teenager, it wasn’t a ‘young adult’ book. Back then you graduated from Enid Blyton to what your parents read, without any genre in between. Except that parents, grandparents and inspired teachers did guide us to the books we’d love. They are still on my shelves now, either gifts or bought second hand, which means that most of them have tatty covers and dapples on the pages. If you’ve kept books long enough to get dapples, you love them very much indeed. (I hate seeing one of my books in second hand bookshop. It means they weren’t worth keeping till they dappled).
‘Most loved’ isn’t always the same as ‘literary merit.’ Many, or even most great books I’ve read, have etched themselves too brightly in my brain to want to read again. A truly great book is one you can’t forget, like Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, which I could hardly bear to finish, or Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, or John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, or Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I truly, deeply, don’t want to read any of them again; and just as truly and deeply they are part of the person they made me into, as great books read as a teenager tend to do. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is one of my most loved books. ‘Do it for the fat lady,’ Zooey quotes to his sister, summing up why you must do boring things for the sake of others. I have never forgotten that fat lady, nor his explanation of how a gift of chicken soup can be sacred.
Looking along my bookshelves I’m surprised how many linger from when I was a teenager, and how few are added each year since. Michener’s Hawaii, Huxley’s Crome Yellow, all nine volumes of the lingering lovely Forsythe Saga, Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, not as dramatic as her sister’s Wuthering Heights, which is not a comfortable book at all.
If I were setting up a colony on Mars, I’d take the greats, as well as the ‘comfortables.’ Everyone needs a chance to have their lives changed by great books. But if the aliens from Alpha Centauri are just offering me a few years tour on their spaceship, I’ll stick to ‘comfortables’ reassuring me as the universe passes by.
Swan Song is reassuring today, especially while outside is altogether too wuthering - petals lying like snow drifts and the climbing rose over the gateway collapsed. I am going to have to chop through it like Sleeping Beauty’s prince. But in Swan Song the breeze is gentle, and the roses in their proper place, in vases on the table and cake to feed the swans. The lawns are too green for bushfire, and the moral questions eventually will be settled.
Any suggestions for books so truly great you can’t bear to open them again, or disregard them either? Or ‘comfortables’ so loved you’ll keep them till they’re dappled?