Tag Archives: Backlisted

Wandering through my childhood library at five AM


not my library

The other morning, around 3 AM, when I was busily picturing all of the food I had eaten during this lockdown and regretting a good two-thirds of it, I turned on the excellent “Backlisted” podcast and was immersed in memories of my childhood books and library…and it got me wondering about things I couldn’t remember. Like, for example, where did we buy books in the time before Coles/Chapters/etc? I remember standing with my dad while he looked over books, but have no idea where that was. Perhaps in the Burlington Mall, land of teenage yearning and light? Absolutely no idea.

So, while listening to the ever so amusing folks on Backlisted discuss Arthur Ransome and the Swallows and Amazons series, I got to thinking about what my formative books were as a child and where they were. We read The Bobbsey Twins, of course, being a family of two boys and two girls (a much less adventurous Swallows and Amazons, with far less tea), and Little House on the Prairie (ditto lack of excitement), and I wandered through Nancy Drew, but I think I bonded more on stories about animals – Black Beauty, Bristleface, Old Yeller. They made my dramatic young self weep profusely. And I loved the charming Cricket in Time’s Square. Charlotte’s Web. Stuart Little.

Garth Williams, my favourite illustrator

Anne of Green Gables and all the subsequent books made me long for red hair and an extravagant way of speaking – mastered the latter but not the former, and still can’t memorize poetry to recite dramatically to myself as I stroll along pathways under flowering trees. Sigh. Tasks for the 5 Am pandemic blearies?

Do I remember a bookcase where I kept them? Nope. Blank spot.

Library, Winchester, Mass.

I vaguely remember the stone library in my home town, the floor linoleum with its pattern of rounded squares, its high shine that came from years and years of being buffed, the smell of the wax. I remember the spinning racks of paperback books, and the hardbacks with the heavy plastic book covers on them, so slippery and impossible to hold. I don’t remember how I got to the library (it was too far for a wee lass to walk) – surely my mother drove us? No recall whatsoever.

It’s funny the patchiness of past memories, the little gaps that, when we dig in to explore them, yield nothing but grey space. But the stories, they remain.

My family’s house was full of books – bookshelves in every spare space, filled with antique books that, to my knowledge, were never read. Occasionally, as an older child, I’d scroll along the shelves, picking up one or another, their paper-thin, tightly typed pages smooth to the touch, smelling of age and forgotten wisdom. During one explore I found, carefully hidden amongst the boring looking ones, Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape. Chapter Two was all about human sexual response and I’d read it secretly, sneaking into the little closet under the stairs, pulling the coats in behind me and curling up on the window seat, afraid someone would see me and report me (sexuality was NEVER discussed in our house). I assume my dad bought it and my mother hid it.

The shocking book that taught me why lips are red

He bought all the interesting books in the house. Books like Chariots of the Gods?, and Godel, Escher, Bach. Books on painting and drawing and doing things. He’d bid on entire sets of encyclopaedias from the 1930’s and bring them home and crow over all the descriptions of foreign places and people. He bought science books, theology books, reading everything except fiction, as so many men do.

My mother bought Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christies and other mysteries in yellowing paperbacks from the thrift store, and curled up solo, delighting in the murders and the puzzle solving.

We didn’t talk much about what we were reading. In fact, I don’t remember a single discussion unless it was my dad telling us about pyramid power or whatever other weird thing he’d read. And yet, the books in our home circulated. If we sat together now (ah, remember those days, when we could?) we’d probably realize we all experienced so many of the same books and shared that language more than we ever knew.

Family. Or the family of books. Our family of memories…