Saturday, June 5, 2010

From The Tree To The Garden

At the edge of the forest, behind my childhood home, there was an old sweetgum tree that was perfectly made for climbing.   On each and every summer day, I could be found there, about three limbs up, balanced comfortably with a book on my knee, my dog resting on the lawn down below, dozing, with her head on her paws and her brown ears twitching at the occasional fly.  It was second nature to me then, but I realize looking back that it was really no small feat to scale such a tree with a hardback copy of Jane Eyre in my arms.  I can still remember how it felt to be hidden away in a secret world of green leaves, unseen by anyone but my dog, lost deep inside the world of a book.

Just the merest thought of summer conjures up so many different images to us all. Strawberry ice cream and lazy days by the sea,  baseball, bare feet and surfboards -watermelon, beach music, and lemonade.  But for me, summertime will always mean books.  When school closed for the year, we would head to the big downtown library to fill our arms with books for the hot summer months.  How well I remember ascending the stairs of that imposing old structure.  It loomed up before me with its stone facade glowing silver in the sweltering heat, set apart from all the other buildings in the city by a dignified bearing that declared it to be a southern temple of thought and ideas, a bethel that sheltered a holy treasure of books.  No longer bound to the required reading of the school year, I was now free to follow my curiosity down every mysterious aisle of that library, pulling out books I had never heard of, books with covers that captured my imagination in colourful nets of faraway places and landscapes unknown.

Some of these books I can no longer remember, but some left such an impression I have no doubt they became part of my soul.  Such is the way with art.  The English art critic, John Ruskin, once said “Books are divided into two classes, the books of the hour and the books of all time.”  That was true when I was little, and I know it remains so now.  I have read a lot of books so far this year, some I barely remember, but some have remained - I am thinking about them still.

I no longer do my summer reading in the treetops, preferring the garden instead.  But I still regard this time of the year as a special time for reading. I wait impatiently for those recommended lists of summer books, hungry for tempting new titles, knowing each one is a possible passport to lands ripe for visiting in summer, searching as I did when I was little, for that one special book that will carry me away on a holiday of the mind.

For those like me who love lists of summer reading suggestions, here are five of mine, along with an enticing quote from each one.  The last book on the list is one I’ve just finished, and one I know will be with me for a long, long time.


1.  “Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones."
from Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

2.  "The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea."
from The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame.

3.  “It would presently be his task to take the bandage from this young woman's eyes, and bid her look forth on the world. But how many generations of the women who had gone to her making had descended bandaged to the family vault? He shivered a little, remembering some of the new ideas in his scientific books, and the much-cited instance of the Kentucky cave-fish, which had ceased to develop eyes because they had no use for them. What if, when he had bidden May Welland to open hers, they could only look out blankly at blankness?"
from The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

4.  "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a christian because of Owen Meany. "
from A Prayer For Owen Meany, by John Irving

5.  “When our mother, a nun of the Diocesan Carmelite Order of Madras, unexpectedly went into labor that September morning, the big rain in Ethiopia had ended, its rattle on the corrugated tin roofs of Missing ceasing abruptly like a chatterbox cut off in midsentence.”
from Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese