In a shop the other week I saw a card that said, “I love you more than books.” It stopped me in my tracks because…that’s a big call. Also, the card was for sale in a bookshop. I kept thinking about it and it made me a bit annoyed. A quick survey of my friends showed that their reactions pretty much matched mine. One of the people I asked, who loves books and who’s been married for decades and still sends lovey-dovey messages to her partner, didn’t hesitate before saying, “I’d NEVER say that to anyone!”
Another friend pointed out that some books are hateful, so to tell someone you love them more than books isn’t much of a compliment. I once read a book by a well-known Australian author whose work I really enjoy and admire, but this particular book was hateful. The writing was as skillful as ever, but the subject was gruesome and shocking. Worse, it was a true story. I read that book to the end, out of respect for the writer and out of disbelief that something so hideous could happen, but at the same time I hated it. I didn’t even want it in my house. The book seemed to glow radioactively in my hands until I gave it back to the person who lent it to me.
That innocuous little greetings card really got me thinking. I’ve loved some books so much that I actually kissed them when I finished the last sentence! Books have taught me languages. They’ve taught me to sew and knit and crochet and cook. They’ve helped me to understand myself and other people. They’ve shown me great art and architecture and ideas. So many times I’ve finished a book and missed the characters for ages afterwards because they were real to me. Of course, if the house were on fire I’d rescue people and animals first (because most books are replaceable) but I’d still mourn those books.
There are a handful of books on my bookshelves that I would go back into a burning building for. They’re not worth much in dollars, but to me they’re precious because of their history and the hands that have touched them. One of them belonged to my grandad.
When I knew him, Grandad was a mild-mannered man who watched cricket on telly and used a piece of string to hold up his trousers (much to Grandma’s shame). He slurped tea from the saucer when Grandma wasn’t looking. If he spilled gravy on his tie at Sunday lunch he’d rub it into the pattern and wink and say, “Don’t tell Grandma.”
He made me a wicker doll’s pram and a little wooden stool with an inlaid chessboard pattern. Apparently, I was so excited when he gave it to me that I kissed it. (Obviously the kissing of loved objects has become a habit!) He made me a wooden moneybox with a Scotsman who tilts when you put a penny on his plate. And he made me an unnerving little Brownie figurine whose neck broke long ago, making her scary face swivel unexpectedly, and frightening me more than ever.
When he wasn’t in his shed making wooden tables or figurines, and when he wasn’t in his garden stroking bumblebees with his large and calloused fingers, he tried to teach himself French. Family lore said that all he ever learned was the phrase “I have a trunk and two suitcases” and there was a lot of laughter about that.
After he died, I was given his French books, including his groovy 1960s Bonjour magazines and their accompanying floppy 45 records that had to be played at LP speed to be understood (although playing them at 45 speed was pretty funny). And I learned that, actually, he knew a lot of French and had completed all the crosswords.
Before he became a gardening, woodworking, cricket-watching bee stroker, Grandad was in the navy. In his photo album are pictures he took in Spain during the civil war, and in the Middle East and the West Indies. In World War II his ship was in the Battle of the River Plate. He kept a shell casing from that battle and used it as a doorstop for the rest of his life. My aunty has it still.
For all his travelling, he had never been to Paris. In the last years of his life, his daughters took him there for a weekend. He walked slowly, leaning on his stick and looking around in wonder at the buildings he’d read about. He sat on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries and listened to people speak the language he’d been quietly learning for years. It must have been a dream come true. Possibly he was overwhelmed, because all he could say over and over, this man who’d travelled the world, was: “Different, innit?” As far as I know, he didn’t say anything in French for the whole weekend and, disappointingly, he didn’t use his famous line.
But he did browse the wares of the bouquinistes on the Left Bank, and he bought this book, published in 1927, to continue his éducation française:
I love it because it’s a beautiful, endlessly fascinating book, but I also love it because it belonged to Grandad and when I hold it in my hands the memories of him come rushing back. So I think I’d have to agree with my friend who said that the greatest compliment you can pay someone is: “I love you as much as books.”