Do you have keeper books? I’ve blogged before about mine. They’re the ones I read over and over. They live on their own special shelf in my bedroom. I wouldn’t dream of reading them as e-books. I go back to them in times of stress or illness; I recommend them to others but never lend them out. A book finds a spot on the keepers shelf if it truly touches my heart, lifts my spirit or demonstrates a literary or storytelling genius of the sort I aspire to. Sometimes I find all three in one book.
Sometimes specific copies become personal treasures. I’m not talking so much of rarity or monetary value, though there are some very beautiful collector’s editions out there and I do own, and love, a set of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books published by the Folio Society. I’m speaking, rather, of a book given or bequeathed by a well-loved family member or friend, or acquired under memorable circumstances; a book whose history makes it particularly special to the owner. It might be an old book – one of those in my picture is a 1906 edition, another dates from the 1940s. It might be too well loved to qualify as collectible anymore, its pages and cover bearing the marks of a long life – a venerable great-grandparent of a book.
My house has bookshelves in every room. I went on a hunt, looking for examples.
There was a minute or two of panic when I couldn’t find The Lord of the Rushie River by Cicely Mary Barker, a tiny book easy to miss between larger volumes. It surprised me how upset I was to think it might be lost. The Lord of the Rushie River was first published in 1938. It’s a story about a girl running away from her cruel guardian and spending a summer living with the swans. My beloved childhood copy of this book was lost long ago. When I found the 1972 reprint I was filled with joy. I remembered the story well, but even more clearly I remembered the colour plates: Susan in the rushes with the swans; the baker’s daughter putting bread in a little basket brought by the Lord of the River as he swam by; the return of Susan’s seafaring father with a beautiful dress that is snatched from his hands by the Lord and taken to Susan so she can greet her father looking like a princess. It’s a tale full of magic and hope. No wonder this little book is one of my treasures. I can see now what a powerful influence it had on me as a future storyteller!
The big volume in my photo is The Golden Staircase: Poems for Children chosen by Louey Chisholm, with pictures by M Dibdin Spooner, published in 1906. My mother owned this book as a child – her initials are neatly printed on the fly leaf – and it came to me when she died. She read the poems to me and my sister in our turn, and even in the 1950s we loved them: The Pied Piper, The Forsaken Merman (my favourite), The Inchcape Rock. They were grand and tragic; the colour plates emphasised the drama of the poems.
The third book pictured is another by Cicely Mary Barker: A Little Book of Old Rhymes. My mother was a musician, and when I read these rhymes I can hear the tunes – she must have sung them to us as children. I wonder if any of you know this one:
There was a lady loved a swine
“Honey,” quoth she,
“Pig-hog, wilt though be mine?”
“Humph!” quoth he.
No matter what blandishments the lady offers, the pig has only one answer: “Humph!”
These books are far more than the sum of their parts. They represent a priceless gift our mother gave us – the lifelong love of poetry, music, and storytelling. In our turn, my sister and I passed on that love to our children and through them to our grandchildren. These books were an early and vital part of my journey to become a writer. Mum, if you’re there looking over my shoulder, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Do your bookshelves hold a few treasured copies? Particular editions or books with a compelling history? Volumes with a symbolic value? I’d love to hear about them.
Photo image is the author’s own. Guarding the treasure are Cross Panda, aged 45, and Sparkle, who was rescued from the dump in the 1980s and painstakingly repaired.