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?