Working from the Cape Times offices yesterday, I needed to look up a word, so I went over to the editor’s secretary’s book shelf and found this beaut.
Is this not the most enticing dictionary dust jacket you ever did see? I was on deadline so it took every ounce of resistance not to look up “zoozoo” or “spoffish” or “estrangelo”. So I took a photo instead.
I have many dictionaries on my shelf, but not this one. I think I should remedy that. Especially since I couldn’t find many of these crunchy words in any of mine and had to go on-line – which is not my favourite way of looking up words. I might have to put The Chambers Dictionary on my birthday wishlist.
To the imagined question “If you were stranded on a desert island, which one book would you wish to have with you?” my answer has always been “a dictionary”.
I am grateful I became an adult in a time when – and a suburb where – one was not expected to have grand material ambition. Whether our parents had money or not was tested purely against the critical question of whether there’d be enough of it for us to study after school without having to get bursaries or loans on our mediocre marks.
The desire to study was based not so much on any sense that we were clever enough to be great, but on the desire not to have to spend our adult lives in the dreary shops and offices where our parents tried to earn enough money to help us avoid having to do so when we left school.
Books were acquired in three ways: for birthdays and Christmas, at the library and by borrowing. At university for a spell my friends and I cottoned on to second-hand book shops and we’d make little bundles of cheap used books for one another’s birthdays.
We were undiscerning readers. What landed in our hands, we read. If it was ours, we kept it. The literature those of us who studied languages bought with our hard-earned waitressing money sat happily alongside cheesy love stories and other pulp on our slow-growing book shelves.
The idea of getting rid of books never arose, that I can remember. Books were read and kept, and shared, and – hopefully – returned.
At some point the collection gained its own momentum, its own raison-d’être. Having books on shelves, displayed and easy to get to, became a thing separate and equally as important as reading a book. It also became, I realised in my twenties, a kind of status symbol: visitors were either enthralled and envious, or appalled and a little repelled that I spent my money on books and actually read them all. It became, in short, a way of refining friendships and alliances – that head-cocked sideways stance of a stranger in your home perusing your bookshelf is, often, the thrill of recognising a kindred spirit.
Five years ago my husband and I embarked on house renovations which were, in essence, an attempt to accommodate our books. Two weeks ago – because life never quite works out the way one plans – I had an enormous book sale at my house and that which didn’t sell must go to charity. My collection – which numbered in the thousands – has been whittled down by about three-quarters.
A few years ago, the idea of getting rid of my books would have filled me with anxiety so acute I would immediately have turned my thoughts elsewhere. And yet the culling now was good, even a little joyous as I passed on some loved tomes to other book lovers.
What I kept were my favourite authors, all my poetry, all my dictionaries, all my favourite children’s book illustrator and authors, books I bought or read in faraway places, books signed by authors or inscribed by friends, and those books which – for sometimes inexplicable reasons – subtly changed the course of my life…like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull which I read at a very young age and was the book that made me want to write.
The rest have gone away, but they’re not gone. They’re stored in the folds of my brain, under my fingernails, between each vertebra – the dust of their words are lodged in my wrinkles. Their work with me is done. But their work is not finished.