This is my one hundredth post. Feeling that it should in some way be significant or celebratory, I delayed writing it. And I delayed writing it. And I delayed some more, but one of the reasons for my beginning this blog was to ensure I maintained at least a modicum of self-discipline over my reading, so I had to get to it.
Well, I’ve been blogging about books since February 2013. I pondered musing at some length about my experience in the virtual world but decided against it: too serious for a celebratory post. Instead, I thought perhaps I’d celebrate books. Then I found myself wondering if I were to be limited to only one hundred books which would they be. I started a list. I would be challenged to limit myself to only one hundred books. I suppose this means I can never move into a tiny space. As it is, my bookshelves are bending, and there are books everywhere in the house. And the truth, of course, is that some books have not been read in years, even decades. But there is something intensely comforting in knowing that they are there to be read when I need them.
Sometimes, it’s the memory of the first reading of a particular story that’s important. Sometimes, it’s the physical presence of the volume itself. The smell of books. Have you noticed how that smell of old paper, old printing ink, and often of dust—books will collect dust—is itself so intensely comforting? You know you may just go to the shelf and take down a much-loved familiar friend. An e-reader doesn’t quite cut it. Yes, the words are still there, but the feel of an old book, and if it is a second-hand book, the marginalia from another hand, the dedication to people long gone: they all contribute to the aura of the book. I would find it very difficult to limit my book collection, and I try not to think of the time when it might be necessary for me to do so.
Anyway, I began listing the hundred books I felt I would absolutely need to have around me. Is it surprising that right from the beginning I was cheating and thinking in terms of omnibus editions and collections? The list is far too long to be the post, so I’ve scanned it as an image if you want to look at it more carefully. I’ve not included art books; I would need, if isolated on a desert island, some books of pictures. I would need at least one collection of Giles’ Cartoons, and a really, really good anthology of poetry.
I notice that my list contains several collections of wonder tales. It’s from folk and wonder tales that we discover the inherent structure of fiction; further, all fiction is on one level untrue even as on another it is metaphorically truthful. I suspect we learn this as children very early.
Not all the books are what we might define as literary, and I’ve purposely left the list random, far more random in its organization than my bookshelves are. I wonder how your lists would match with mine. Our book collections reveal a great deal about us, don’t they?
What I noticed as I surveyed my list was the first works I had thought of were A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, When We Were Young, and Now We are Six. Then came the fairy tales, then Shakespeare and the Bible. But why Pooh first? I think this takes us back again to the whole role of fiction and our response to the way it can take us if not out of ourselves then out of the ordinariness of every day life, or, if not out of the mundane, at least allowing us to look at ordinary life through a more highly focussed lens. All books take us into the world of the mind, allow us to engage with ideas; fiction, in particular, though often mistrusted for its very imagination, creates for us that place of the mind: that “enchanted place on the top of Forest [where] a little boy and his Bear will always be playing” (Pooh Corner). The shared appreciation of ideas bridges differences in age, in gender, race, culture. Yes, indeed, we can live the life of the mind without physical books, but the physical presence of our books provides tangible evidence of possibilities. Our books remind us we have only to open them and we are engaging with ideas; we are moving to those “enchanted places” that we need so much.