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Books and Memory

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The last few days I’ve been re-reading some old favourite books and I’ve been vividly reminded of when and where I first read them.

I’ve done a lot of reading lately related to research for That Forgetful Shore, and towards the end of it I was reading a lot of nonfiction and novels set in the 1930s. This naturally made me think about my very favourite books of that era, Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, and I promised myself that as a reward, when I got this draft finished and ready to submit, I’d treat myself by rereading those four books: Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon. I’ve read them dozens of times over the years – especially my favourite, Gaudy Night, which was the one I read first and have reread most.

I discovered Sayers, and Lord Peter, and Harriet, the summer I was 16. After I graduated from high school (which only went to Grade 11 in those days, children), my parents gave me a trip to Toronto — by myself! — as a graduation present. For the first week I stayed with a schoolfriend whose family had moved from St. John’s to Toronto at the beginning of our Grade 11 year. We’d missed graduating together and it was great to catch up and spend time together after a year apart, but as I recall her family were very earnest, energetic people who always liked to have lots of Activities Planned.

I don’t recall everything we did that week in Scarborough but it seemed that we did a lot – I know there was a trip to a U-Pick strawberry farm involved, and the makng of strawberry shortcake from scratch, and a variety of other things to do.

The second week of the holiday couldn’t have been more different from the first. I crossed the city and went to Oakville to stay with my Aunt Vi and my cousin Alison (there are, and were then, three male members of that family but they were always shadowy background characters anytime I stayed there, either absent or out of the way, so I’ve always thought of it as  Aunt Vi and Alison’s house). This was a far less structured household and while some sixteen-year-olds might have found it boring, I found it wonderfully relaxing after the whirlwind I’d just been through with my friend’s family. Not only did I not have anything planned for me when I woke up each day, I was often the first one awake (my friend’s family were all energetic early risers who had the breakfast dishes washed by 7:30 a.m.).

I would go downstairs in my aunt’s quiet house and make myself toast with strawberry jam — a nice contrast to those strawberries we’d so labouriously picked the week before — and sit out on the deck with a book and eat it in the morning sunshine. June mornings warm enough to eat and read outside were (and are!) a treat to a gal from St. John’s, but the absolute silence and solititude of those mornings was even more of a treat. I had the run of the extensive bookshelves in the house and either Aunt Vi or Alison must have recommended Gaudy Night. It can’t have taken me the whole week to read it but my memories of that week are all of sitting on the deck, eating toast with strawberry jam, and reading that novel, its lovely language opening up new worlds and possibilities in my head. Few books I’ve read in my life have had as big an influence on me as that one, and there are few books as closely associated in my mind with the place and time when I first read them.

But a lot of my memories have to do with books. Another trip I took because of my parents’ generosity — a trip to England after I graduated from college — is memorable mainly as the trip where I read Brideshead Revisited, and where I finished The Cider House Rules and attempted to leave it on a railway platform in Reading (I didn’t want to drag a load of books around in my backpack and thought I would try abandoning them as I finished reading them, but it didn’t work as I went into the station cafe to get a snack and a helpful older man followed me and handed over The Cider House Rules, telling me I’d left it behind).

What about you? Do you have specific places and times in your life connected with the memory of books you read? Do the books evoke the memory of when and where (and perhaps with whom) you read them, or does the memory of a particular place call up the book you were reading at the time?

…or is it just me?

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15 thoughts on “Books and Memory

  1. I specifically recall, “Giants in the Earth,” Ole Edvart Rolvaag. It was the summer between 11th & 12th grades. My family had gone camping and I spent my time (probably too much time!) reading it. I had borrowed it from the shelf of the woman whose children I babysat. Then when I started Senior Lit, Mrs. Graebner passed out a form to us on which we were to record every book we read while in her class. The first section of the form was filled out for us, to show us how to do it, and the book that was used for that sample was … “Giants in the Earth!” Couldn’t believe my eyes !! Senior Lit turned out great; I’d finish a book and recommend it to Mrs. Graebner and she’d finish a book and recommend it to me. Ended up getting a 100% on my year end essay final !!!

  2. I love this post!

    I don’t remember all the specifics, but I remember feeling very proud of myself at around the age of eight or so and walking with a friend to the public library (hey, it was the seventies, it was the norm and we survived!). I picked out The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and some Nancy Drew books. I loved the pure escapism they provided and I’ve been reading ever since!

    • Yes, I remember walking to the public library with a friend after school too — not as young as 8, but at 10 or 11. Right now Emma is a big Nancy Drew fan.

  3. The Narnia series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, plus The Hobbit. I read them for the first time the summer of 1984 in California at my mom’s cousin’s house. My grade eight graduation present was to go to CA for the summer, and I spent …6 of the 8 weeks at their house. They had (and still have) a HUGE library in their house, and they got me reading them. Reading those books for the first time remains one of my most vivid memories of that summer.

    (reposted from Facebook)

    • I was a big Narnia fan but it took me longer to get into Lord of the Rings — I read the Hobbit soon after I read Narnia as a child, but couldn’t get into that world nearly as much. I think the lack of a strong female character to identify with was a big barrier for me, and I didn’t really appreciate LotR till I was much older. And (whispered blasphemy) even today I like the movies better than the books …

  4. I love Dorothy Sayers — I love the four you mentioned but Murder Must Advertise is my absolute favourite followed by Strong Poison and Gaudy Night. The book that made the biggest impression on me was Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. She was the first author I read who wrote of my time and this was 1978. She was supplanted by Margaret Laurence in 1980 and before my child arrived, at least once a year I would sit and read through the entire canon with The Diviners being my favourite.

    (reposted from Facebook)

  5. A friend, who knew I never read fiction, recommended I read Frederich Buechner’s Godric. I never got around to it so he finally bought me a copy and to get him off my back I decided to read it.

    The tale is told by a narrator who himself is somewhat senile and so the story line itself is fascinatingly woozy. It took me almost the whole book to get the interior logic of the story but when I did, it was so exhilarating that upon finishing the last page, I simply turned to the first and read the whole book again. To this day it is my favorite reading memory and the experience helped me understand the Truth telling power of fiction.

    • First of all, to get it out of the way … Steve Bell commented on my blog!! (fangirl squee!!)
      Then, re Buechner: reading Philip Yancey convinced me I ought to try reading Buechner. I can’t remember what book I tried reading but I didn’t get into it, but perhaps I should give him another try with Godric. You do a convincing job of selling it …
      After that experience, do you still never read fiction?

  6. I 1st read Ken Follets Pillars of the Earth and World Without End while I was pregnant. When I started reading them a second time it brought back wonderful memories of feeling my daughter move around in my belly!

    • That’s a cool memory! The only Ken Follett I’ve read is Fall of Giants, and I really enjoyed that.
      I have a pregnancy/birth book memory too, but not a good one. When I went into hospital to have my son, my aunt loaned me a mystery novel by some English writer — can’t remember who, but it was a contemporary one, not an older mystery like Sayers or Agatha Christie. The first night after giving birth, with my baby asleep next to me, I started reading the mystery and it began with a grisly scene of a man kidnapping, raping and murdering a young girl. I went into this horrible depressive tailspin thinking about how I could have brought a child into such an awful world, and I’d had a BOY, who was going to grow up to be a MAN, and men commit horrible crimes, and … I never read past page 3 of the book. Could not pick it up again.
      Now of course I realize my hormones were kicking in and the book triggered an attack of “baby blues” but I cannot adequately express how bleak it made me feel at the time. Just a bad choice for that moment in my life.

  7. I was ten when I started reading Jane Eyre, in my room at home. However, I remember only reading it in the daytime. The dark, depressive imagery of the orphanage scared the stuffing out of me.

    • Now I just want to see that movie! I hope it comes here. I didn’t read Jane Eyre till I was much older, which is probably, in retrospect, a good thing.

  8. I’m at work at 4 am, so my brain is definitely slowing down. I can’t think right now of specific books, but I know that there are several that have captivated me to the point that I couldn’t put them down – hours later I would emerge from the fog…perhaps the reason I can’t remember specific places/books is that the books so obliterated my surroundings as to make my brain completely forget them. I remember the books, just not the places….as prolific a reader as I am, I tend to associate music with places rather than books. My parents must have listened to old Maranatha praise tapes one time in the late seventies or early eighties while driving through the Rockies – I can’t hear those songs to this day (thirty years later) without seeing pictures of the mountains in my head…

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