Monday, December 23, 2013

Halfway Around the World, Halfway Through a Century

By Lisabet Sarai

I believe I've written before about my experience moving from the US to Asia. It took eighteen months for us to purge our houseful of possessions accumulated over more than twenty years, to decide what we couldn't bear to discard and had to bring with us. Those exhausting months made me vow to travel light for the remainder of my life, to avoid acquiring new material things and to jettison unnecessary possessions whenever possible. (A vow that's surprisingly tough to keep – but that's another blog post!)

Decisions about some items were easy. We didn't have any furniture worth saving. Appliances wouldn't run here anyway, due to the difference in electrical standards. Lots of what we'd accumulated only made sense if we owned a house that would need continuing maintenance, and we were pretty sure we'd never be in that position again.

Books, though – we had thousands of books. Maybe as many as ten thousand, if you included technical books used in our careers. Of course books weigh a great deal and take up significant space. And you can't really consider them en masse, as a category. You've got to examine each title and choose whether you care enough to keep it.

There were some volumes, though, that hardly required any deliberation. I had books I'd been carrying with me since childhood, or at least my early teens, and I wasn't going to ditch them just because I was about to move 12,000 kilometers. They'd had a place on my bookshelves in my college dorms, in my first apartment, in the group houses where I lived during graduate school, in the apartments my husband and I rented before we bought our house. These books had made a huge impression on me when I first read them, and I didn't want to give them up.

They're still on my bookshelves, half a world away from my place of birth and almost half a century since that event. In some cases (I realized when I pulled them out to write this post), they're not in very good condition. But then fifty years is a long time.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Louis Carroll
With eighty-nine illustrations by John Tenniel and four color plates by Edwin John Prittie
The John C. Winston Company, 1923

My family acquired this very soon after I was born, as part of a package deal that included a dozen “children's classics” along with the Encyclopedia Americana (which by the way remained on my shelves until we left the US, despite dating from 1953). The binding is broken on this volume and the inside covers are moisture-stained, but otherwise this favorite from my childhood is in remarkably good shape. I read these two tales over and over, fascinated by the weird logic and nonsense verse. At one point, I could recite the entire first chapter of Alice's Adventures from memory. However, I always preferred the darker and more dream-like Through the Looking Glass. Chess is a far more challenging game than cards.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1953

The date on this two volume hardcover set makes me wonder whether it too was acquired when I was born. If so, my parents showed remarkable foresight, as I probably didn't start reading Conan Doye's stories until I was ten or eleven. Shared reading formed a strong bond between my father and me, and we were both dedicated Sherlock Holmes aficionados. Of course I admired Holmes' intellect, aspiring to the same acuteness of observation and deductive facility. In addition, though, the brilliant, moody, anti-social detective stirred feelings that I now recognize as prepubescent lust. All my life I've been drawn to men of dark genius. Intelligence has always been far more likely to arouse me than physical attractiveness. I wonder if it all started with Holmes.

The Complete Plays of Gilbert and Sullivan
The Modern Library - 1940?

This book actually belonged to my mother. According to the inscription, it was a gift from her older sister on the occasion of her high school graduation. Although it wasn't on my personal shelves as I was growing up, it was always available for reference in one of the family bookcases. I'm pretty sure I took ownership of it when I went away to college. By that time, my mother was a functioning alcoholic and I was on the down slide into anorexia. Nobody would have noticed it was gone.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
Ballantine Books, 1960

Most likely you've never heard of this book. It's a fantasy, aimed at what would now be called the "young adult" audience. The book is set in the Welsh countryside and features prophecies, wizards, ghouls, trolls, dwarves and a brave brother and sister battling to save the world from evil. I still recall my first reading of this tale. Colin and Susan, the young protagonists, flee across a snow covered land, hiding from the flocks of crows wheeling overhead, spies for the wicked creature trying to recapture the Weirdstone. I felt true terror at their desperate situation. I could vividly imagine the sense of exposure, the fear of leaving tracks in the vast, open expanse of snow, the black patterns of the ill-omened birds against the bleak winter sky.

I recently reread the book, curious to see if it still could affect me. Of course the reactions of a sixty-year-old will never be as intense as those of a child, but the story still managed to evoke flickers of excitement and fear.

Ghosts by Ursula Perrin
Bantam Books, 1967

The date on this novel means I couldn't have read it until I was in high school. I have no recollection whatsoever where it came from. Perhaps I found it at a yard sale; there's a price written in pencil inside the cover (40 cents).

Ghosts is a coming of age story, a dream-like reminiscence of a teen aged girl's sexual awakening. I haven't re-read it in decades and I probably should, for it left an indelible impression on me. I doubt it is sexually explicit, but I know it captured the thrill, the confusion, the doubt, that surrounds one's first love/lust (as a teen, the two are inextricably intertwined). I fiercely identified with Eleanor – I was feeling exactly the same things.

I'm often moved to try to capture the heady, terrifying, overwhelming experience of teen lust myself. These days, however, you probably couldn't publish a book like Ghosts, because the protagonists were under eighteen.

I consider this a great loss.

Lilith by J.R. Salamanca
Simon & Shuster, 1961

This paperback I've retrieved from the shelves can't be the original that so fascinated me, despite its age. The inside cover lists a price of $2.50, penciled in above another annotation of 40 (cents?). Obviously this book has been around.

However, I know I read Lilith as a teen. This haunting tale of obsession captured me from the first sentence. “I grew up in a small Southern town which was different from most other towns because it contained an insane asylum.” I've always been intrigued by madness, perhaps because my father was a psychiatrist, perhaps because some members of my family occasionally acted insane. Salamanca's schizophrenic heroine Lilith conjures an exquisite and terrible other world. Little by little, her therapist Victor finds himself drawn into the dangerous but seductive realm created by her brilliant, disturbed mind.

Did I have an intuition then that I'd spend months in a psychiatric institution myself, before I reached the age of twenty? This seems unlikely, yet I like to play with the notion. Certainly, the juxtaposition between insanity and eroticism appealed to me. I've always suspected that “normality” is a dull set of requirements forced upon us by society. Being crazy might be a lot more interesting (though I wouldn't recommend my experience in the asylum).

In any case, I guess I lost my original copy of Lilith somewhere during my peregrinations. When I happened upon a used copy, I snapped it up. Because the book definitely deserves a permanent place on my shelves.

These days, after I read a print book, I tend to get rid of it. I'm trying to keep my vow, for one thing. For another, very few books I encounter have the impact of these early reads. I know that's partly because I was so young. After six decades of non-stop reading, I am a lot more difficult to impress.

As long as I have bookshelves, though, the titles above will have a spot – at least until they crumble to dust. And then, I'll probably go out and replace them.


  1. Isn't it fun looking through these books? Its like you see a little record of your life and your evolution of thought. My books are like that too, though not as much because I spent so many years living on the road that I only recently began accumulating books which requires a certain amount of stability.

    When we decided to move to Panama in 1995 I had to get rid of about half of my books, and that was hard. It was as though they cried out to me. So I know what that's like.

    I was thinking about your comment about insanity and eroticism, because I've written on that too to some extent. Do you have Netflix? If you do, watch season two of "American Horror Story: Asylum". I would love to know what you think of that series.


    1. Hi, Garce,

      We can't get Netflix here. They don't trust us not to pirate the films.

      I've always wanted to write a story set in a psychiatric hospital, though. I do have a scene in Necessary Madness, which draws heavily on my personal experience.

  2. there's such magic on your shelves, Lisabet. i love how imaginative these books sound.

    1. I've always been more of a mind than a body person. Even when it comes to sex.

    2. ditto.apparently that's called being sapiosexual ;)

  3. As a semi-retired antiques dealer, I must admit I cringed a bit every time you described those wonderful, vintage volumes with broken bindings, pencil-marked and beat-up. But your descriptions of the more lasting qualities are the true value of these books. It's in the reading itself.

    1. Hi, Daddy,

      The books are falling apart from age, not mistreatment. No pencil marks made by me! (The ones to which I refer are prices, on the flyleaf for the ones I bought used.)

      I doubt these volumes would be viewed as vintage. Though I could be wrong. The Gilbert and Sullivan might be. Actually, it's in very good condition still.

  4. When books get used, they get beat up. That's the way it goes; that's what they're made for. I just get that pesky knee-jerk reaction. Merry Christmas, Lisabet and all… Say Hi to hubby for Momma X and me.

  5. Lisabet, your old book of the collected plays of Gilbert and Sullivan would make a great companion piece to my parents' collection of vinyl records of the operettas. (I don't know where those records ended up.) Thank you for giving us a peek into your home library.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.