You may remember among the photos I included in a piece about Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, the picture of some bookshelves as Henry James might have seen them (sadly the books pictured are not James’ originals).
I thought I might also share with you some images of other bookshelves I saw on a recent visit to places in East Sussex and Kent, shelves associated with a couple of other literary figures. You may care to imagine, as I did, the authors in these places scribbling away or reading the latest publication sent their way.
I have always enjoyed reading, but I’ve never been sure how to select appropriate material. There are so many books in the world — how do you know which one will match your tastes and interests?
Thus writes the titular character in chapter 32 of Gail Honeyman’s excellent Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017). A Latin graduate, she clearly has no problems with factual works but fiction confuses her.
The covers are of very little help, because they always say only good things, and I’ve found to my cost that they’re rarely accurate. ‘Exhilarating’ ‘Dazzling’ ‘Hilarious’. No.
For her, I suspect, novels may provide clues as to how ordinary minds work, because Eleanor is no ordinary person. The thought processes of most people are largely a mystery to her.
The only criterion I have is that the books must look clean, which means I have to disregard a lot of potential reading material in the charity shop.
I sort of understand that squeamishness. Luckily for me the secondhand books in the charity shops I frequent are often as good as new, but that’s not always the case.
I don’ t use the library for the same reason, although obviously, in principle and in reality, libraries are life-enhancing palaces of wonder.
Eleanor is anxious about library books touched by unwashed hands, read in the bath, sat on by dogs, or body effluvia and excess food wiped on pages. I’ve worked in suburban libraries in the past and can understand those worries, though she does exaggerate them: “I look for books with one careful owner.”
Is that the case for you too? What are your tolerance levels for pre-owned, even pre-loved reading materials? Is your motto secondhand bad, firsthand good? Or is the book’s condition a matter of indifference to you?
If, as Alice Hoffman is everywhere quoted, “Books may well be the only true magic,” then she is only following a tradition that has been acknowledged in all literate cultures: writing is magic, and magic is the written word.
We can point to the beginning of St John’s gospel to see this concept expounded:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Without getting into a theological discussion of what exactly John meant by Logos (‘the Word’), I just want to point out that the spoken word (and later the written word) is seen as the act of creation, and the creative act is magic, in its purest form.
All our language surrounding the concept of words, spoken or written, is closely bound up with magic.
Robert Macfarlane: The Gifts of Reading
Penguin Books 2017 (2016)
This short essay — just 34 pages of text in A6 format — is a paean or hymn to reading, giving, and books. In fact, one book in particular which he was given as a present, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. Macfarlane then uses this as a springboard to discourse on what moves him: teaching, talking and travelling, companionship, landscape and nature.
I can’t begin to grasp or comprehend all that the author has read, visited or achieved but there is no doubting that the writer of last year’s unexpected bestseller The Lost Words (illustrated by Jackie Morris) is someone who lives life to the full and exults in all he puts his mind to. In describing Leigh Fermor’s book he describes it thus:
I felt it in my feet. It spoke to my soles. It rang with what in German is called Sehnsucht: a yearning or wistful longing for the unknown and the mysterious. It made me want to stand up and march out — to walk into adventure.
It’s clear that he finds so much of what he comes across in his reading as inspiring. He’s not without humour; he declares that “not all books received as gifts are transformative, of course. Sometimes the only thing a book gives its reader is a paper cut.” But from being given books that expand both his mind and his horizons he makes it his habit to do the same, in the hopes that recipients will likewise find inspiration.
The back cover of this slim booklet tells us that all proceeds from its sale are donated to Migrant Offshore Aid Station. The charity’s mission is designed to provide desperately-needed search and rescue services to people attempting dangerous sea crossings while fleeing violence, poverty and persecution. Such migrants are travellers who don’t have the liberty to journey for leisure or pleasure. The purchase of this publication may therefore in some small way help a few of those who are in most desperate need of aid, one of the many ways in which reading can prove to be a gift.
We’ve been holidaying in East Sussex, near the historic town of Rye, seeing sites, such as gardens and buildings, and sights, such as the sea and countryside. Amongst them all is beautiful Rye itself.
Rye is also a veritable literary mecca. Natives and residents have included playwright (and sometime Shakespeare collaborator) John Fletcher, Henry James (who completed The Spoils of Poynton near Rye, and then wrote his remaining novels in Lamb House, Rye), E F Benson (author of the ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels), and Conrad Aiken (poet and author), not forgetting Joan Aiken, his now more famous daughter, born here ninety-four years ago on 4th September 1924.
Aiken celebrated her birthplace in her fiction, sometimes obscurely. For example, the short stories in The Monkey’s Wedding feature towns called, variously, Rohun, Rune or Ryme. The Wolves Chronicle entitled Midwinter Nightingale, first published the year before her death, was partly set in marshland reminiscent of Romney Marsh, the coastal area between Winchelsea and Dungeness, and accessible from Rye. And, of course, The Haunting of Lamb House, her supernatural novel from 1991, is specifically set in Rye.
Forgive me but please be indulgent, for I shall in due course be posting a little bit more about this part of East Sussex and its literary links; for now it seems a good time to celebrate the genius of Joan Aiken and draw attention to her Sussex birthplace.
Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House. Jonathan Cape, 1991 ~ Midwinter Nightingale. Red Fox, 2005 (2003) ~ The Monkey’s Wedding. Small Beer Press, 2011
Dorothy Eagle and Hillary Carell (eds): The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles. OUP, 1977
Henry James: The Spoils of Poynton. Penguin Classics 1987 (1897)
Two-thirds of the way through the year and it’s a good moment to take stock. Which authors read, what books completed, what goals reached, what satisfaction achieved. That’ll be the who, what, when, where dealt with, and maybe the how, but as to why — that’ll require some introspection and I’m always a bit wary of that.
I’ve long had a fascination with mazes and labyrinthine paths, whether it be their patterns, their history, their symbolism or their psychology. My bible for a long time was W H Matthews’ classic overview Mazes and Labyrinths: their history and developments (first published in 1922 and republished in 1970). I also pored over G R Levy’s The Gate of Horn (1948, republished 1963) which looked at how caves may have contributed to the lore of the winding path, while taking copious notes from a library copy of Jack Lindsay’s fascinating Helen of Troy (1974).
I learnt the difference between unicursal and multicursal mazes, and also the correspondences between the classic Cretan labyrinth and the Christian maze (as typified in Chartres Cathedral); I taught myself how to draw the classic pattern freehand, and traced it out on beaches for the amusement of children and, later, grandchildren; I corresponded with experts (for example Adrian Fisher and Jeff Seward, author of Magical Paths) and exchanged notes and booklets on the subject with them.
And, of course, I read fiction that featured the labyrinth and the maze in all its wonderful variety.
Here are ten titles about these conundrums that I especially remember and value (links are to relevant reviews or discussions).