Thursday, June 8, 2023

Who knew? (I knew.) by Catriona

 Reading: The building's on fire - what books do you save?

As Susan said on Monday, this is not a theoretical exercise for those of us who live in northern California. In the summer of 2020, the wildfire evacuation line got within three miles of my house (the fire itself was five miles off, but clearly visible day and night). I put all paperwork from birth certificate to tax receipts in one suitcase and a selection of clothes for the two of us in another. That's what Case 1 and Case 2 stand for on this evacuation plan, which I wrote then and still have on my desk.

Two things: first, Rachel coming third isn't an indication of her not being at the top of "save me" list - honest! - it's more that I didn't think of her as a thing to be packed, rather as a member of the household to be included. Also, would you look at that? No books.

The sentimental items that got a mention here are my two most cherished paintings - one a portrait of my late grandfather and one a commissioned landscape of our old house in Scotland - and then, in hopeful but realistic brackets, all the other paintings, drawings and numbered prints, since they are genuinely irreplacable.

Today - well, Monday when I read Susan's post - is the first time I've ever considered saving books from a fire. The interesting thing that came out of the pondering was that it reconfirmed something I've always believed: I'm a reader first and a writer second. 

Whenever people say they can't read while they're writing, it makes me more sure that, if that was true for me, I wouldn't be a writer. (Like when one year of English literature at university made me dislike Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh and I promptly switched degrees.)

This mental exercise confirmed my hunch. Read on . . . First, I thought about saving the five books that made me a writer. I'm looking at them in a wee pile on the other side of my study right now:

Pride and Prej, Catch-22, I Capture the Castle (and in such a lovely edition, right?), The Water-Method Man and Gone With The Wind. These are five books that I read at a sitting - yes, even the doorstop - and that left me excited and inspired, with a transformed idea about what a novel could be. 

But I wouldn't save them. For a start, it's one thing to be honest about the fact that GWtW blew seventeen-year-old me away that weekend in the 1980s. It's quite another to save five books out of thousands, at the age of fifty-seven, and let one of them be actual Margaret literally Mitchell. Um, no. (Plus I could get a nice Capture ...)

And what of those thousands of other books? Lots of them are lovely editions, many of them are signed, some of them are treasures from childhood. Through the Bible, by Theodora Wilson Wilson exerts quite a pull, because of the inscription written at Christmastime 1942, when my grandad gave it to my mum (way to pick a present, Mack!), Or the fragile copy of Wee Magreegor, which was the first book an adult ever loaned me. My best friend's dad - Ralph Beer - handed it to me with great solemnity and I carried it over the road to my house like a sleeping baby. I was touched when Catherine gave it to me for keeps, many years later, after Ralph died.

But if I opened that glass-fronted bookcase where Wee MacGreegor lives along with all the other beautiful vintage books I've collected - everything from O.Douglas to Erle Stanley Gardner - in all their kitsch glory, I'd be a goner.

Nah, there would only be one choice, really. The TBR shelves. If the flames were licking at the door, I would scoop all the books I haven't read yet into a wheebarrow and trundle them out to the truck, where Neil would have the engine running and Rachel would have started sharing her heartfelt opinion about the how her day was going.

See, I know what I've read and I could replace it (or not, you know, if it was a slog at the time) but I've got no firm grasp on what I've bought but haven't got to. I'd like to be able to pick up where I was before I was interrupted by the disaster, and keep reading.

I'm a reader. And here's the final proof. I was halfway through writing this post before it even occurred to me that a second wheelbarrow trip could get me every edition of everything I've ever published. They're on a set of shelves in my study, nice and handy. But I surprised myself. There's only one thing in this last picture that would definitely be in the truck that dreaded day.




Lyda McPherson said...

I have found that most of my favorite writers (pointedly looking at you) are Readers (yes, it deserves the capital R). As to Wee MacGregor, he's small. Please make room for him.

There are parts of my childhood that are hazy however one of the clearest is sitting in my 1st grade classroom with my very 1st reader open on the desk. There was one word on the page. "Look". The second page carried on. "Look, look" If a six year old can feel empowered, this was my moment.

Ann said...

Looking at the last photo and deciding what would be the last thing you’d save
Is that black blob Rachel? No contest.
But if not, I’d leave it behind.
The chair? Reminds me oh The Grapes of Wrath. Or Granny Clampett. Naw.
I think you save the cozy afghan, yes?
It was knitted by your gran when your mother was carrying you. But it’s not meant for a baby girl. Last chance for a boy maybe? None the less it has kept you snuggled for fifty- seven years. This isn’t the time to abandon it now

Unless that blob IS Rachel

Much love

Catriona McPherson said...

@Lyda, I remember that first reading book too - Here comes Janet. Here comes John. Here comes 9in my head - although it must have been "come"0 Janet and John.

@Ann, that black blob is Rachel. I'll tell her you said so. And the blanket was knitted for a baby my mum didn't know the flavour of. It turned out to be a girl so I lucked out!