by Julia Sneden
On a dark, rainy day many years ago, my mother was preparing to return home after a visit with my family. The rain was so fierce that she decided to delay the trip for a while. We sat on a window seat and had another cup of tea as we watched the relentless downpour. Mother leaned her head against the glass, peering up, and said in a dreamy voice: "It's coming down so hard that it reminds me of that passage at the beginning of Bleak House. You know, the one with the marvelous description of rain."
I was embarrassed to admit it, but I'd never read Bleak House, a revelation that shocked my literary mother. But then, it wasn't the first time that I'd had to admit to a limited exposure to 19th century writers. My high school class may well have been the only American students of my generation who didn't have to read Silas Marner. I do recall a bit of Hawthorne and Emerson, a smattering of Dickens (David Copperfield and Great Expectations), with a pit stop for Stephen Crane and Lafcadio Hearn. But nothing that I read in those days encouraged me to pursue the authors' other works, perhaps because my mind was full of the confusions of my own teenage life.
Eventually the rain stopped, and my mother went home. A couple of days later, a small, well-wrapped parcel arrived at my house. It was a copy of Bleak House, Mother's very own copy, bought, according to the date inscribed under her name on the bookplate, during her freshman year in college.
It was small (about 4x6 inches) and bound in supple, smooth navy blue leather. The pages were parchment, so that the entire book weighed very little, and it was so flexible that it seemed to nestle into my hands. It was a joy to hold, and a joy to read. The print was crisp and clear despite the small type size.
I guess I had become so accustomed to modern books with stiff covers and porous, flimsy paper that I had forgotten how truly a beautifully made book enhances the experience of reading. A book that is easy to hold, bound with a cover that is a pleasure to touch, printed in type that is easy to read, entices the reader and predisposes him or her to enjoy the process.
I've long had a physical relationship to books, one that involves all five senses. When I was a child in school, I loved the days when we were given our new readers. We were taught how to open them carefully, laying back the covers left and right, and holding the pages together, upright. Next we turned down a few pages at a time, first left, then right, running our hands gently along the crease at the binding,. Even during those WWII years when materials were not easy to come by, our books were printed on high-quality paper that was smooth and clear. Rubbing the pages down was a tactile delight.
As soon as the teacher turned her back, I would thrust my nose down into the book, and take a good, long sniff. I suppose what I was smelling was the ink as much as it was the paper, but to this day, I love the smell of a new book.
I would also feel of the corners of the cover, and riffle the pages several times, proud of my ability to run them smoothly from back to front. Now and then, I'd even succumb to an odd urge to taste a book, never a hardbound book, but a workbook like my speller. I knew that I wouldn't have to turn a workbook in at the end of the year. It was mine to deface. I'd furtively bend back the corner of a previously used and graded page, rip it off and chew it like gum. I must have been a sneaky child, because nobody ever caught me at it.
From a very young age, I have clear memories of the visual impact of some books:
- Clare Turlay Newberry's cats (Mittens and April's Kittens especially)
- The E.H. Shepard line drawings for Winnie The Pooh
- and, not surprisingly, the drawings for Mary Poppins done by Shepard's daughter, Mary Shepard
- The colorful artwork of Holling C. Holling's Paddle To the Sea
- any of Kate Seredy's twelve books, from The Good Master (1935) to Lazy Tinka (1961)
I can still recall the smell (books; freshly waxed floors) and sounds (muffled voices, footsteps on linoleum, the snap of a card catalogue drawer being closed) of the public library in Redwood City, California, where my brother and I went weekly to pick out a couple of books. I don't remember the name or face of the librarian in the Children's Section, but I know she must have been a good one: she kept track of our interests and ability levels, and always had suggestions for what to read next.
I suppose that it's as foolish a generality to claim to "love books" as it is to "love children." You can love specific books and specific children. You can love the idea of books, and the idea of children. You can even love the sight and sounds and touch and scents of both books and children. But there are specific books and specific children that it is impossible to love, and the least said of any of those, the better!
After all, you can love books and still retain your critical abilities.