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Death and books

Odd title, but hey! It’s my blog! Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of a loved one, so it’s been a weird day. Books were a very big part of our life together, which is why books are mentioned and are actually the main point of this post. He had a way of recommending books to others, even going as far as always picking up copies of favourite books to have on hand to give away.

One of the first books he mentioned to me was Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara. I didn’t know it so I found it and read it. This amazed him. That I actually went out and found a book he mentioned so I could read it for myself. It seemed to me like a logical way to get to know a person – what did they read. He was quite moved. To be completely honest, I cannot remember that much of the book now, 24 years later. What he especially liked was good writing, which is what he admired with John O’Hara. He wanted a good story, but the writing always had to be top notch or he would drop the book. I don’t know exactly what his definition of good writing was (correctly placed commas?), but I think it was putting the right words in the right places. That sounds banal when I write it like that, but I think it is correct. He disliked anything touching on science fiction or fantasy, but he was a huge fan of Douglas Adams and Jasper Fforde. Because of the writing.

Enjoying a good turn of phrase meant that we both enjoyed reading a favourite passage out loud to each other. This could be hard for him if it was a funny passage. He read part of one Jasper Fforde story where several sentences had an unusual amount of one word in them: “not”. He was gasping and wheezing for breath as he read it because he was laughing so hard. I had to go and read the passage myself later because I couldn’t understand a word he had said! The worst bout of laughing over books came from reading a book catalog about the sale of a book about the English explorer, Thomas Cook. He was reading it, and immediately read it aloud to me. We looked at each other for a moment. “Don’t they mean James Cook?” I asked. “Yes”, he replied. Then added, “too many cooks”. At that, we both burst out laughing and laughed so hard for a long time, that we almost started crying from pains in our stomach muscles. If we looked at each other, we triggered a new bout of laughing. I think I went and paid some bills just to calm down again so we could both breath normally and spare our poor muscles.

We had a huge respect for each other’s interest in books. We didn’t always like the same author, but we never dissed the other’s favourite, even if we found that author to be tedious or boring or whatever. We also knew the importance of keeping books that meant something to us, or picking up a book, reading it, and sending it back into circulation. We called those “chuckers”. Those were books found in a second-hand shop or at a Dutch auction that you thought looked interesting enough to buy to read, yet not interesting enough to consider keeping on the shelf for a long time. Such a book could be kept into a box because we were often short on shelf space. Many shelves had double rows of books, in fact. Chuckers could hang around for a long, long time, but once read and deemed once again not quite worthy of putting in a permanent spot on the bookshelves, they were sent back into circulation through a charity shop.

Over time, more and more books appeared on the bookshelves that had a story. Two stories. The one inside written on the pages, and the one that told how that book came to be on the bookshelf. I treated many of the chuckers like kittens, I must admit. I wanted them to go to a good home. If I enjoyed the book, I thought surely someone else woudl like it. Most of them didn’t have an ISBN number so that tells you these were not all the latest and greatest. I thought it outrageous that I couldn’t give books freely to libraries so there could be a structured way to get a book into circulation again. Why were there such bureaucratic barriers? All the librarians I know–and I know many–roll their eyes at this comment. Oh well. Sometimes we could research a book and be so fascinated by its story that we had to keep it just because the book existed. We could spend an evening diving down Wikipedia rabbit holes and other corners of the internet learning about an author, their life and their books. Of course we read bits out loud even though we were reading the same page. This was just to emphasise some aspect we found particularly interesting.

I have a slew of Silent Traveller books by Chiang Yee, simply because he discovered them at a flea market and thought–no, knew–I would like them. I loved them on principle because they were books from the 1930s written about areas in England by a Chinese writer who had moved to England to study. I liked the idea of the role reversal there. In addition to that angle, the author was an artist. The books are illustrated with beautiful prints of his sketches and watercolours from his travels. The books are all old, out-of-print, and have no special value. I feel like I have a treasure on the shelf, especially because it was a serendipitous find and gift from one book lover to another. If you know someone who likes books, seeking out some treasures at a flea market or charity shop can be more fun and more rewarding for both of you than buying one of the top ten bestsellers at your local bookshop.

I tried to set up a blog for him at one point so he could share his thoughts on books. He had many. Both thoughts and books, and I had proof that others enjoy his musings, too. He couldn’t be bothered. “There are already a few blogs about books out there. The world doesn’t need more,” he said. Ha! I told him that even if only five other people liked a post, the effort would be worth it. He hemmed and hawed, and I could see that one single blog post would take him 100 revisions before he considered a first draft. I had to give in and drop the idea.

In summary, books were our language and often our communication. Shortly after he died, I was reading Lillian Hellman and came across something I had to share with him. I was fully aware he had died, and I grieved for him. We had our ups and our downs, but we had a very special connection, even though we were actually separated at the time of his death. This “oh, I must share this passage with him” came from out of the blue for me. That is when it first sank in that there would be no more reading passages aloud, diving into internet rabbit holes, or laughing ourselves silly over a single word. I started sobbing. I had lost my soulmate.

This post is for you, J. We could never have a short conversation!

One Comment

  1. Kai
    Kai 25 February 2023

    Where words won’t do, I’m sending you a heart: <3

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your passion, Kai.

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