Posted by Ian
When an extraordinary news story breaks, everyone remembers where they were, and what they were doing. In the same way, there are remarkable books which, when first encountered, are forever impressed with a timestamp of memory. Not all these books are deathless. Sometimes it’s just the conjunction of the book and the person that fuses incandescently at a specific moment. I vividly recall devouring Jonathan Livingston Seagull in a single sitting at age 12. I recall the place (my grandparents’ house), the chair I sat in, the weather at the time (sultry, overcast), and being absolutely overwhelmed with the vividness of the story and aching with desire that it be real, even though I knew it was a fanciful allegory. Had I encountered this book today, I fear it would fail to catch fire. That doesn’t take away from the magic I felt at the time.
There’s something Schrödinger-like about this… A book cannot be a good book without there being at least one person who feels it’s a good book. But the existence of at least one person who feels it’s a good book doesn’t make it objectively good. Or even subjectively good to others. At the end of the day, while we can make rules, we have to accept that taste plays a role. But I digress.
Without being too boring and self-indulgent, I thought I’d mention a few of the children’s/YA books that have left me with lasting impressions (the same occurs with adult books – but that’s a different blog altogether).
One of the earliest I can recall? My mother had a lovely picture book by Marjorie Flack called Angus Lost. Most of the illustrations were black and white but there is a centrepiece where Angus (a black Scotty terrier) comes out into a snowy streetscape which is in full colour, complete with pink and yellow sky and blue snow. As a little boy I found this exceptionally beautiful and I was absolutely mesmerised. It says something about the impoverished nature of picture books at the time that I found this simple three-colour reproduction so entrancing. When compared to any of Jane Ray’s work, I’m afraid Angus Lost would appear very humble indeed. But I didn’t know any better and despite the basic method of reproduction, the artistry and charm of the illustrations shines through.
At the other end of childhood, in my late teens, I was browsing the stacks of the Toowong Library, which was then housed in a beautiful, purpose built architect-designed building (now that so few actual paper books are kept, perhaps the library could go back there?) I ran across Displaced Person by Lee Harding. Finding it strange but fascinating, I started reading it then and there in the stacks. Although I took it out and finished it at home, it still recalls for me the smell and feel of that lovely library. It’s a strange and unusual book, seemingly without precedent in terms of style, at least for me at the time. Too early, unselfconscious and hard-edged for magic realism – but too unexplained for sci-fi. I must read it again and try to understand what fascinated me.
There are many more examples of people, places, and times shackled irrevocably to my reading experiences. I have only to recall and they come tumbling in. What are some of yours?