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CARPE LIBRUM: Gwenyfar revisits beloved books from childhood

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I was talking with a 13-year-old friend about her current reading. She explained she was rereading a book when I mentioned my favorite reread: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s “Good Omens.” I flip through it at least once a week. “For me, it’s like going to visit with old friends,” I said. “I just like spending time with them.”

This week I am singing an ode to books I have known and loved. These are strange and trying times, and though I continue to read and discover new books, right now, I crave the company of old friends.

I grew up in a house that continued one of the largest private libraries in the state, and, eventually, came to own a bookstore. Obviously, reading is important to our family. Like all things involving family dynamics, book ownership is far from simple.

My father loved to buy beautiful and obscure children’s books. I owned one Dr. Seuss book that was a gift from a family friend, but the majority of my collection was far less recognizable. The theory, I think, was I would get exposed to the current hits of children’s literature in school and at the library. So, rather than reiterating that at home, my parents gave me myths and folktales from around the world—obscure kids’ books that only got one print run, and kids’ reference books that I still look to today.

Though my parents’ books were considered sacred and not to be given away, damaged or sold, somehow, there was an attitude I could “outgrow” books and they could be rehomed. This battle raged until my mother’s death when I was 29. Shortly after I moved in with Jock, I rescued several books from my childhood, including the “See Inside” series of children’s books and the “Heroes and Warriors” series.

The “See Inside” books utilized cutaways (much like another famous book, “The Way Things Work” by David Macaulay). From them I learned galleons (or pirate ships, as I instantly recognized them to be) were far less spacious than I had been led to believe. In all honestly, they looked downright cramped. Castles, which were always presented as roomy, lavish and beautiful, were frequently fortresses with very little comfortable room for habitation. I still look through these books, especially “See Inside a Castle,” usually while waiting for dinner to finish cooking.

A couple weeks ago, I held up “Princely Courts of the Renaissance” to Jock. “This was one of my favorite books when I was little,” I said.

He read the title and chuckled. “I’ll bet it was.”

His eyes twinkled. I knew he was thinking about the man my father was, and the person I grew into, as if mentally checking off a box that read “mystery solved.” The renaissance in Europe is associated with Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Shakespeare, Marlowe, De Vega and the birth of modern philosophy. If you met my father, you’d know this time period was still very much alive to him. I think I was 5 before I realized Leonardo Da Vinci wasn’t still living. My parents talked about him and Michelangelo like they were old friends we might see on a family vacation.

 

The books that surprise me most when looking through the collection are those in the “Heroes and Warriors” series. My parents were pacifists. I never heard them use the word to describe themselves, but their actions spoke to a non-violent resolution. (When interviewing babysitters, my mother asked two questions: “Do you have a gun in your home?” and “Do you allow your children to watch TV?” She considered both deal breakers and thus should speak volumes about my upbringing.)

In other words, a series of books on famous warriors is a bit surprising. The series focused on El Cid, Charlemagne, Boudicca (my favorite) and Barbarossa. As an adult, I added Irish mythical hunter-warrior Finn MacCool when I came across him. Although I grew up in a house that discouraged violence, my parents were both adamant you had to understand history in order to understand the present. Charlemagne changed the face of Europe. (If you want proof of this, research how the Third Reich got its name.)

Though aimed at children, the books contained a surprising amount of scholarship (and, in the case of Boudicca and Finn MacCool, archeology). Even as an adult, I’m enthralled by them. It is hard to write a book that continues to appeal to readers as their intellect grows. Yet, here I am, in my late 30s, developing a deeper appreciation for Charlemagne’s administration.

Of course, none of this is to say I don’t have story and picture books I still go back and visit. “The Prince and the Pink Blanket,” about a prince who sucks his thumb and carries a ratty old pink blanket around to the embarrassment of his royal parents, is still a perennial favorite.

There are books I bought in my high school years that are falling apart because I have read them so much. Jock has offered to buy me new copies, but I shake my head. The memories I have—not just of the stories contained within, but also where and how I acquired them—are worth preserving. It is time travel in the most real sense: to when the world was opening up to me for the very first time, and when I still thought Michelangelo was going to stop by for dinner, and maybe bring his friend David who modeled for the famous statue.

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