Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Books We Were -- Katherine Govier

(first appeared in an expanded form in the 'Ottawa Citizen')

_Wide Sargasso Sea_; Rhys, Jean

I am helping a friend pack up the books in her study. His books are in another room, to be boxed separately. The house has been sold; the marriage has ended. I pull the dusty paperbacks off the shelves, six at a time. These are the books that defined us as university students at the end of the sixties, and as young women in the seventies. James Joyce’s The Dubliners. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades.

“Oh my god, look how young she was!” we say, gaping over the jacket photo. And realize that, at the time, we were even younger. Now we are in our own turbulent fifties. Who could have imagined that this decade of our lives would see us so painfully shaking loose the commitments we made thirty years ago, in love and innocence?

These are the books we were. Having boxed and moved my own library a few times, I recognize them. Joan Didion Play it as it Lays and The White Album. Normal Mailer Armies of the Night. Early tomes of CanLit: Hugh McLennan, Marie Claire Blais, Al Purdy and Margaret Laurence. Judith Rossner, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Lisa Altman, Annie Dillard.

Look at this: Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. The book is in perfect shape, with the rest of her titles behind. The alphabetical order is approximate, not obsessive. The books are findable, but they’ve been pulled off the shelf and replaced a few times.

Virginia Woolf, the oeuvre. A Room of One’s Own, our bible. Dusty and stiff, it hasn’t been opened in a decade. Doris Lessing, The Four Gated City. I remember exactly where I was when I read that (Massachusetts, summer of 1971, 23 years old) and with whom (first husband) and how moody I got about it.

Diet for a Small Planet. The Moosewood Cookbook. The Pooh Cookbook. Elizabeth David, the boxed set. Those recipes were incredibly complicated, as I recall. Back to fiction. Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers. Here’s a hardcover first edition, a John Buchan novel. “That’s his,” says my friend. Different box. Different collection, entirely, aside from Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, and Paddle to the Sea.

Rarely are the his and her libraries amalgamated. His would be history, political biographies, books about war. Maybe D. H. Lawrence, the oeuvre. Aldous Huxley, the poetry of Yeats. Maybe Arthur Ransom, the whole Swallows and Amazon series. As these collections will go their separate ways, there’s no chance of merger. How did we ever think we could get along with the opposite sex when we read such different books?

Our Bodies, Ourselves. Now that is a classic. The book looks brand new. I cannot say the same for our bodies. We have some sags and stress wrinkles. Is it possible that we have taken better care of the books we adored, than of our hearts and minds?

The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Remember her standing on the cobb looking out to sea? So romantic.

Our ideals have been for a rough ride in the last three decades. We asked a lot of our lovers and of our friends too. Which books here even hinted at how much work it would be to make a family that was Totally Different from the one you grew up in? To live up to what these books preached, have jobs, be citizens, and non-authoritarian parents? And which books told you what was next when that work is mostly done, and things fall apart?

Filling the carton is never easy. Timothy Findley’s Dinner Along the Amazon is a completely different size than Seamus Heaney’s North and I end up with a crater in my carton. The books slide around, or they won’t lie flat. I don’t want them to get bent. Taping up the cardboard flaps, I wonder-- when will these books come out again? Freedom comes with less wall space. Is it time to edit the collection, and our notions with it? Fit it to the new reality?

No. Just time to reread.

Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea
W.W. Norton

Katherine Govier has published eight novels and three collections of short stories. Her last novel was Three Views of Chrystal Water (4th Estate, London, UK; Harper Collins, Toronto). Her previous novel, Creation, was a 'New York Times' Notable Book of 2003. Katherine has spoken at the Lahti International Writers’ Reunion in Finland, at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, at Cambridge University, Princeton University and at the Canadian Embassies in Tokyo, New Delhi and London. She has been President of PEN Canada and helped found the new program ‘Canadian Journalism for Foreign Trained Writers’, which is open to refugee and immigrant writers, at Sheridan College. Her work has been published in Dutch, Italian, Serbian and Chinese. Katherine spends her time in Toronto and in Canmore, Alberta, in the Rocky Mountains.

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