Today, 7th March, is World Book Day. Is this a day for a species facing extinction? As someone who has created a book, I suppose I should encourage you to go and save a book from extinction. Go and pick a book off a shelf at your library, indie bookstore or your own overfilled shelves. Or at least, order a copy of mine.
Forgive the tone, for in truth I love books. I love how as an adult I can carry one around like a comforter, for I suspect many of us do. Even in this age of digital reading options, some people I know will carry around a choice of volumes on transport with them and those in addition to a few ‘must read’ newspaper articles and supplements. So we go out with these talismans against boredom, those of us with brains that struggle to keep still or who have become arrogant enough to think a stranger’s conversation will probably be uneducated babble and a waste of time. My Father, who would talk to (though not with) anyone, was well known for having a book stuffed in the back pocket of his trousers; my Mum would despair at how this ruined their spines.
At Primary School on a Friday we used to watch old fashioned reel-to-reel movies in the school hall. Usually there were a few cartoon balanced with a couple of Department of Education issues. One week we watched about book care. In the clip, we were shown a book wailing out in its moments of torture: being dropped in a bath, having its spine bent, being written in, having liquid spilled onto it. (What else was there to educate little girls about in late 1980s South Africa?) I took these warnings to heart and endeavoured for many years afterwards to spare the books in my life such agonies.
In our home, books were regarded as precious, except by my Dad who left them lying open on top of the ‘fridge or stuffed ungraciously in-between others in a bookshelf (habits that proved of further irritation to my Mother.) At one point during my growing up, we had twenty-two bookshelves of books, many shelves bulging with many more than one neat row. My Dad, who littered his volumes around the house, was the one who was always reading. He read while eating, shaving, even walking home from the station. He juggled life with absorbing those volumes and read a great thick volume about the Irish Potato Famine at least three times over in the last few years of his life.
The wonderful habit, which drove us all batty, was that Dad would recount, chapter for chapter, page by page, what he was reading. It was a running audio book (seldom on subjects of our interest) in the household. We all longed for silence and less incessant “Did you know?” Now, of course, we miss it. Even “Anna Karenina” on MP3 download is not the same. Nobody else has the same knack for recounting what they’re reading.
Books can be precious. They can be portals. They certainly were an addition to my childhood home life. However, I believe it is the storytelling – over and above the format – that warrants celebration. So, yes, go and support your local library, the indie bookstore, dig out an unread volume from your shelf, but add a story to it. Write it, tell it, leave it on a voicemail. Give that story to someone else. Love a book, sure; just enlarge the stories that they carry and share the love with another person.
(Image credit: “A Young Girl Reading” (c. 1770) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. A copy of this painting hung next to the window in the old, attic library of my Primary School.)