The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Friday, 27 November 2009

A Pleasant Surprise by Mary Mayfield

A fascinating revisitation of a childhood book from Mary Mayfield. It raises interesting questions about what is suitable for children, and whether some older ideas would get published today. Thanks Mary for letting me share this!

Toby and his Little Dog Tan or the Great Detective of Fairy-land.

Written by Gilbert James and illustrated by Chas Pears.

"This is one of my mother's favourite books from her childhood, in the 1920s. The hero, Toby, is woken in the night by a little red man come to summon him to help retrieve the stolen pearls of the Queen of Fairyland. He is transported, through a badgers' set and along an underground river, to meet the Fairy Queen and then off, via the bad fairies town and an escape on a stork's back,
meeting a variety of talking animals along the way, to track down the thief, rescue the pearls and prevent wolves invading England.

I've always found it be a terrifying book. My mother tried to persuade me how wonderful it was but I was frightened by the illustrations, particularly the little red men.
When, years later, she's tried to get my daughters to read it, I've always said "Don't. It's horrible".
So, I went to find it, intent on sharing with you the horrors of early 20th century children's literature and was amazed to discover that the writing is actually quite funny. It starts by describing Toby as a very clever boy but adding "His teacher did not think so but then she wore eye glasses".
The little red man explains to Toby that when the Queen's pearls are lost or stolen "all the fairies get stupid, and cross, and sleepy". "I suppose" said Toby, "you are stupid though you don't seem cross, or - but you do look crosser now than you did before"
Later on, little dog Tan is trying to sniff out a field mouse "and putting his nose in the air and waving it - his nose I mean - of course, he could not wave the air, at least, I don't think he could, but one never knows"

Some of the illustrations I'm sure would never find their way into a modern children's book. The little red men still look like devils to me, even after all these years, and the picture of Toby, armed with a pick-axe, and Tan fighting the fox is bloodthirsty.
Even so, I'm really pleased to have gone back to this book and eventually enjoyed it - thanks to James and his Dusty Old Books."

Mary Mayfield

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The Story of Ferdinand

I'm sure many people are familiar with this children's classic - the first book about "pacifism" I ever read - but I hate the thought of anyone missing out, so just in case... here it is. The story, by Munro Leaf is deceptively simple and begins: "Once upon a time in Spain..."

What follows is a beautifully shaped fable with superb drawings by Robert Lawson, and was first published in 1936. Ferdinand is not like other bulls. They all butt their heads and fight. But Ferdinand prefers to sit in the pasture under his favourite cork tree and just smell the flowers. As he grows older his mother worries - but "even though she was a cow" (cue much hilarity) eventually understands her calf is happy.

One day the other bulls are showing off to impress the matadors, hoping to be picked for the bull fight.

However when Ferdinand accidently sits on a bee, the matadors misinterpret his apparent wildness and take him away to Madrid, where "all the lovely ladies have flowers in their hair..."

Astonishingly, the book was banned in Spain and Nazi Germany as subversive, yet the conclusion is as touching and tender as Ferdinand himself - but I won't give it away just in case this little gem has slipped through your literary net. If so, seek it out and fall under it's kindly spell. My copy may be dusty and old and falling apart, but it has been reprinted many times and I hope it is still in print!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Nebula to Man

Possibly the maddest book in my collection, this is a Darwinesque narrative poem describing the scientific progress on earth from it's creation through to early man. It takes 450 pages of rhyme and many Edwardian illustrators to get us to "Modern times". The chapters are all accurately and sequentially titled after the various eras: Triassic, Jurassic, Cretacious etc. I would have loved this as a child, and the highly literal and representational images of prehistoric life are very simular to those in Arthur Mee's Encyclopaedias, if any of you are old enough to remember those. They were part of my child-hood.

"But life on land persues a chequered course,
As Law holds on its way, without remorse."

I couldn't put it better myself.

Published by J.M. Dent in 1905 this is (understandably) a first edition and is disarmigly didactic and cheerfully inaccurate ; the dinosaurs would not pass muster today. It reminds me of the magnificent Victorian concrete dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Gardens, with horns-on-noses where there should be none, and the bi-ped dinosaurs slithering on all fours. Science (and what publishers are looking for) has moved on, not always to mankind's benefit, alas. I wonder how the twentieth century would be mapped out in narrative verse, as an appendix to this mighty volume?

The provenence is interesting too - it's from a library of a Spiritualist Society in Essex which housed Conan-Doyle's library. When my parents ran a second-hand book shop they were invited to clear out unwanted books. I went along to help and fell in love with this Nebula. It was a strange experience: obviously we felt scrutinised, being amongst mediums in a large Agatha Christie style mansion. In fact the Society was extremely pleasant and welcoming. Nevertheless, I half expected the ghost of Margaret Rutherford (who my grandmother once met in Kew Gardens; she was utterly enchanting by all accounts) to appear and admonish us for taking the books. As ABBA's Fernando played on their radio we discovered that anything they did not agree with had been "edited" with scissors... but the Nebula was intact. Many books had book-plates declaring them the personal property of Conan-Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes fans gave my parents a very good price for them.

Nebula to Man is probably a worthless book, having no apparent Conan-Doyle link. But to a once dinosaur-mad kid it was the most fascinating and bizarre book in the entire library. I love it. It's mad, it's ridiculous, the rhymes don't even scan. But I know it will never end up on an ereader!

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Saviour Pirotta: Things that Kindle can't do yet - part two

Saviour Pirotta has written a Lovely personal collection of thoughts and memories, tied together by books:

"James blogged about tatty tv tie in DUSTY OLD BOOKS a while ago. It set me thinking about another thing [in fact, two things] that Kindle can't do yet, and probably never will.

My parents were not the sort to waste hard-earned cash on pressies. They weren't alone. No one I knew when I was a kid ever received gifts, not ones wrapped up in wrapping paper and decorated with ribbons and a gift tag anyway. We all got a bag of fruit and nuts for St. Martin's Day in October, lucky money from grandma for New Year and - if we'd behaved 365 days out of 356 - a gelato for our name Saint's day. [Mine is St Saviour's Day in mid-July, so gelato was a real cool treat]

One Christmas eve, though, my brothers and I all got dressed in our Sunday best and we took the bus to town. My eldest brother was starting secondary school and dad had decided he needed a geometry set. While at the stationer's cum bookshop cum lotto office cum rosary bead seller's, my father was suddenly struck down with a momentary lapse in meanness. He said we could all choose something from the shop.

My brother Lino picked a double pack of card games: Snap and Old Maid. I made a dive for the bookshelves. Now up to that point I only had four books in my precious book collection, mainly because my parents disapproved of any tome that did not have Nihil Obstat printed on the title page. Nihil Obstat is Latin for No Objection, which meant the church had not found anything in the book that might corrupt a susceptible mind.

The oldest book I had was a Victorian copy of Kingsley's The Water Babies. It had belonged to my great aunt Agnes, who'd very diligently drawn and coloured in swimming cossies on all the naked water babies combing the rock pools in the ocean. I also had two Ladybird books, one about the Holy Land and another about the USA, where my great aunt had worked as a nanny for a young couple in Hollywood. And I also had - although no one in the house knew about it - a tattered copy of Enid Blyton's The Happy House Children, which I'd nicked from the English RAF family next door just before they left for their new assignment in Hong Kong. This was easily my favourite book so, needing to grab something before my dad regained his senses, I picked The Mountain of Adventure. It was an Armada paperback, and the pride and joy of my collection for years.

Now some time after this, I bumped into the novelist Nicholas Monsarrat [as one does] vainly trying to get water out of a roadside pump the local kids had vandalised. We got talking and he told me that one of the most precious moments in an author's life occurs when he receives a parcel containing advance copies of his latest book. From then on, I used to waste a lot of time wrapping my beloved copy of The Mountain of Adventure in brown paper and pretending I was Mrs Blyton savouring that precious author moment of laying eyes on her latest book for the first time.

Imagine my confusion then, dear blog reader, when years later I walked into the library at my secondary school for the first time and realised that the copy of The Mountain of Adventure my heroine Enid lovingly caressed at that sacred moment of authorship might not have been an Armada paperback like mine, but a hardback book, with a dust jacket and a completely different picture on the cover. What was going on?

The librarian, a very kind jesuit whose patience would be tested to the limit in the five years I was at that college explained the concept of different EDITIONS to me. Major novels, he said, were issued in hardback first, for the cognoscenti who collected books. There might be different editions for book clubs, and different covers to suit the tastes of the English-reading public in various British colonies. If the book proved popular, there would be a paperback editon. And if the novel was made into a film, there would be a tie-in. Some books have had hundreds of different editions, especially the classics that have been around for a long time.

Which brings me, in a very roundabout and self-absorbed way, to my first objection about Kindle. What about different editions? Kindle might issue books with a screengrab for a cover, very much like the kind of artwork you get when you download a song on iTunes. But would that be enough to entice a new reader, to make him want to go back to the novel time and and time again? I don't think so. Book lovers will always want beautiful editions, and that's why I for one will not be forking out for an ereader.

PS: My second objection? You can't really give an ebook for a present. How can you wrap it? What would you put under the Christmas tree, the token, a print-out of the receipt? Bah! Humbug?"

Saviour Pirotta

Thanks, Saviour, for permission to post this on the blog!