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Monday, 07 May 2012 02:00

A Life With Books

By  Karina Magdalena Szczurek
Let me begin by emphasising a truth very close to my heart: There is no such thing as too many books. You could think that with all the books around us, and the poor reading culture in this country, it is pointless to reprint some of the titles Picador has published during the last four decades. But it isn't, and I hope it never will be. The only thing that could become pointless would be a world without books.

When I look at the rows of books here, I see magic. Because the moment you pick up one of them and take it home, it has the potential of becoming a lifelong friend. On the occasion of Picador's 40th birthday, I would like to introduce you to some of my dearest friends and their stories.

It is strange to think of it today, and I blush saying it, but I hated reading when I was a child. I loved listening to stories, but not reading them myself even though I'd mastered the skill pretty early on. I opened books to look at pictures; I left the words to others. My grandfather would read to all of us, his five grandchildren, when we gathered at our grandparents' house for the weekend or the summer vacations. And when he wasn't available, we would listen to the wonderful collection of fairytales and legends we had on LPs. Stories meant bedtime, warm summer nights, my cousins' laughter or outrage (depending on the plot unfolding) piercing the dark room we shared as children before we fell into our own individual dreams. Stories were something communal, something out there, something I could submerge myself in the moment the gramophone needle fell into the first groove of an LP. I could never get enough of them, and yet I would not seek them with my own eyes. Thus it is not surprising that I can only remember one book from my childhood: P.P. Jerszow's Koniok Gorbunok, translated from the Russian into Polish as Konik Garbusek (Pony Hunchback). However, its story is a vague memory. What attracted me to the book were J.M. Szancer's magnificent illustrations. I remember pouring over them for hours, especially the few of the beautiful princess, images still prominently displayed in the gallery of my visual memories.

When I was ten, my parents were granted, very unexpectedly at the time (communist Poland of 1987), visas for a holiday in Italy for the entire family. It was the opportunity they'd been waiting for to flee the country, but fearing exposure they couldn't tell anybody, not even my brother and I, that we wouldn't be coming back at the end of the summer. So they pretended to be going on the official holiday instead. Knowing that our car would be thoroughly searched at the border, and that any 'un-holiday-like' luggage would cast suspicion on their intentions, they couldn't risk taking, among so many other things, any part of their library with. But there were two books they could not leave behind, no matter what: an encyclopaedia they bought with a few years' savings, and their copy of Adam Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz, the Polish epic of which all educated Poles know at least the first few lines by heart: "Litwo, Ojczyzno moja! Ty jesteś jak zdrowie; / Ile cię trzeba cenić ten tylko się dowie, / Kto cię starcił. Dziś piękność twą w całej ozdobie / Widzę i opisuję, bo tęsknię po tobie." ("O Lithuania, my country, thou / Art like good health; I never knew till now / How precious, till I lost thee. Now I see / Thy beauty whole, because I yearn for thee." - translation by Kenneth R. Mackenzie) After all these years, and many other trips around the world, both books are in the family and will be passed on as treasures down the generations. However, like most of what we owned, my Konik Garbusek was left behind in our small flat in Jelenia Góra, the city of my birth, and for many years I continued dreaming about it, but never dared to hope that I would see it again. After four years in exile we returned to visit Poland for the first time. Miraculously, my lost childhood friend waited patiently for me on my cousin Ala's bookshelf. We were reunited. And now the battered book, like me, has found a home in Cape Town.

Karina, reading.

One of the countries I lived in as a child was the United States. It was in Warwick, NY, that Mrs Nellie Fahy, the librarian at my school, saw me wasting my time at the computer which stood in the library while the other kids in my class had Spanish (by then I already spoke two foreign languages and it was decided that I should practise my English instead of trying to catch up with Spanish which the others had had for a year before I came to the school). I was thirteen and I still didn't like reading. I was fascinated by the computer and its drawing programme. Luckily, Mrs Fahy would have none of it. She took me under her wing and started feeding me books she thought I might enjoy. I read the first one just to please her: Kate Jassem's story of Squanto the Indian and the first Pilgrims. I loved it. In those first few weeks I also remember reading the autobiography of Helen Keller - that scene when the little deafblind girl understands that the signs her teacher is making into her palm signify the water running over her other hand will forever be lodged in my memory - and the Sweet Valley High series which kept me hooked for a long time. Suddenly, I realised how wonderfully precious books were. I could not only feed my starved imagination with them, but do it anytime and any place I wanted, even under the desk during social science classes or way past midnight in my room when the rest of the household was asleep. In the end, I wouldn't do anything else: I went to school, ate, and slept a little; the rest of the time I read. My parents began to worry and eventually forbade me to read for a while, encouraging me to get a life of my own. It was tough to find the right balance between reality and fiction, and I sometimes still end up on the wrong side of a story, but the two worlds are no longer at odds.

I remember the day before the temporary ban on reading when our class teacher began reading James Lincoln Collier's and Christopher Collier's My Brother Sam Is Dead to us. I was too curious about the story to keep waiting for the next lunch hour when the teacher would pick up the book again, so I bought a copy for myself and finished it in one sitting. Looking at the title, one would think that Sam's death in the novel wouldn't come to the reader as much of a surprise. To me, it wasn't only a shock, but also a tragedy and a loss which marked me for life, more perhaps than any other death in my real life. I wept for Sam for many hours. And when my parents decided to leave the States and move back to Europe, and I had to squeeze all that I wanted to take with me into one suitcase, I could not part with the book which brought Sam's story to me. Today, it also lives with me in Cape Town.

I first discovered South Africa through her stories. I fell in love with this country's literature and then with the country itself when I came here to do research in 2004. While I was living in Stellenbosch for a few weeks, one Sunday morning I opened a new book, one of the first novels I bought during my stay, André Brink's The Rights of Desire. I usually read in bed after waking up and before sleeping. That day I only got up in the late afternoon once the last page of the novel was turned. It wasn't the first Brink I'd read, but it was the one which stole my heart. Who would have thought that its author would repeat the theft only a few months later? Today, André and I have been married for almost six years, the happiest years of my life. We share our love for books, introducing our old friends to one another and making new ones together.

To welcome André into the family, my parents gave him a special illustrated edition of the Polish Pan Tadeusz and an English version so that he could also get acquainted with the story. Both books form part of the three cherished libraries in our house.

André brought Sigrid Undset and her breath-taking Kristin Lavransdatter into my life. When we travelled to Norway last year and visited Undset's home in Lillehammer we took our doorstopper copy of the novel with us to put on Undset's desk. As a special favour we were allowed to sit behind it as well: one of the most magical moments of my life.

While I was already living in Cape Town, a young passionate book collector contacted André and asked him to sign some of the first editions of André's work he'd collected over the years. Christo Rademeyer immediately became a friend. His love for and care of old books is remarkable. A few years ago he brought André a gift for Christmas - a 1927 Dutch Bible. Opening it, we were overwhelmed by the strong scent haunting its pages: the smell of the sea. I assume that the Bible lived somewhere near the sea for many years before it came to us, and although André and I are not religious, we experience something spiritual when we turn its pages. Whenever I miss the sea and cannot go to it, I turn to the Bible for consolation.

Together, André and I have made many other friends over the years. More recently, and very fittingly for this occasion, one of them is Craig Higginson, a local Picador author and one of the finest contemporary writers in the country. First, we encountered his beautiful third novel, Last Summer. Then André read the successor, The Landscape Painter, while I plunged into the predecessor, The Hill. André spends a lot of time in baths. That is also where most of the ideas for his books are born and refined. We both read in the bath and even have a special bath book, made out of plastic, which can easily survive a dive into the water. After its accidental slip into the bath The Landscape Painter had to recover for a long time in the sun on the stoep until one could consider reading it again. André insisted on buying me a new copy for my turn, but I liked the soaked and sunbathed one, and managed to read it without major difficulties. Craig also signed it for us when we met him for the first time in January and even though we barely know each other, we have an idea that our newly-fledged friendship might be one of those which can be tested by deep waters.

I look at Picador's reprint of John Banville's The Sea and its simple, elegant design makes me think of the people I might buy it for. In another of its incarnations, it has made a lasting impression on me. The smell of the sea is also lurking between its pages.

I cannot imagine a life without stories and these magical objects which are their homes and which we call books. They are dear and true friends who never let you down. Our home would not be a home without them. Without them we would not be the people we are. We surround ourselves with them and carry them around in our bags or pockets, because their presence is always comforting. I love the feel of a book, its smell and its texture. I don't mind carrying a library in my suitcase whenever I leave home - I always say, if there is one good reason to break your back, it is books.

I understand the convenience of e-book readers and the excitement of their novelty. But every time I see one of these devices, I ask myself: Would I consider it a childhood friend and cry when reunited with it after years of exile? Would I risk my freedom for it? Would it be among the things I pack into a suitcase which holds my entire material existence? Could I think of it as the harbinger of my only true love? Would I carry it across continents to place on an author's desk? Could it ever smell of the sea? Would it survive a plunge into the bath? And will it mean something to anybody in 2097 when it is as old as our sea Bible?

For me, giving up on books would be equal with abandoning my life-long friends. Both give meaning to my life. Without them, I would also want to cease to exist.
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1 comment

  • Comment Link Judy Croome Saturday, 12 May 2012 02:00 posted by Judy Croome

    A winsome, nostalgic reflection on the power of the printed page. Some of my earliest childhood memories are wrapped up in books - I still have that old copy of Paul Gallico's Thomasina in my library today. I also love my eReader. When I compare my Kindle to my Thomasina or to the old family Bible from 1895,with its old yellow newspaper cuttings of my great-grandfather's death and a report of the trial of some long forgotten family member during the Boer War, I'm inclined to agree with you that, despite the convenience and ease of my eReader, the printed book has a magic that captivates one forever. But then I watch a friend's 2 year old play on her pink plastic laptop and I know that despite her parents both being academics & book lovers , to this child and her generation, the printed book will not have the same emoinal meaning as it does to us. Sadly, in 2097, printed paperbooks will be rare museum pieces and eReaders will be unimaginably sophisticated...and probably considered horribly archaic.

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