Sacred objects

July 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Despite the fact that I have far too many books (and only own a tiny fraction of the books I’ve read), a large number of them still manage to be sacred objects. They’re like a little chunk of my history, either as gifts or as reminders of places I’ve visited. I often give away entire shelf-fuls of (unspecial) books, and sometimes regret it later. That desperate urge to declutter never lets sentiment get in the way of a good purge, or at least not until it’s too late. (I’m sorry to say that I’ve recently given away ten years’ worth of…no, I still can’t bring myself to admit it. Better to pretend they’re in storage somewhere remote.)

Second-hand books with their own history are just as intriguing. Recently, I found an old copy of The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden. It wasn’t until I brought it home and started reading that I noticed a name inside the cover–the name of someone I know. Much fascinating speculation ensued: had the person liked the book when they were younger? Why did they give it away? Would I dare mention it–or might they want it back?

Rumer Godden is an interesting woman. Growing up, I had an audio tape version of The Rocking Horse Secret (as it was the only tape I owned at that age that wasn’t a recording of nursery rhymes, I listened to it many times), which I found simultaneously rich and slightly condescending. Reading that book recently, I realised it must have been written later in her career. I’ve noticed this in other children’s authors too–that as they get older they incorporate contemporary objects to demonstrate their continuing relevance, yet their assumptions about class/childhood/politics/society remain largely unaffected by the changing fabric of the world they’re writing about. They often seem nostalgic for the good old days before everything went to hell in a handbasket and children walked uphill both ways to school in chest-deep snow, etc etc, while also recognising that they need to be contemporary if they want to sell books. In this case, it’s an odd juxtaposition of roller skates and staying on the right (or wrong) side of the green baize door.

The Dolls’ House and Godden’s other books about families of dolls are quite good. Given that I’m constantly discovering how gullible, trashy and sentimental my childhood book tastes were (too bad Michele Landsberg–of whom more in a future post–wasn’t there at the crucial moment to give me pointers), nobody should trust my opinions on this subject. There’s a nice review of the book here, though. At this point in her career Godden was great at writing for children: treating them as if they are fully as capable as adults of understanding subtext and complex vocabulary. Aside from the story and the writing, I’m intrigued by how Godden often takes the time to describe, in minute detail, how practical things–like repairing the furniture in a trashed dolls’ house–are accomplished without money. There’s not some magic fairy who comes and makes everything new again with an injection of cash; the children in the story work hard to make do, mend and find ways around obstacles.The Dolls’ Houseis charming and delightful–but also down-to-earth and not remotely twee.

Note how even the covers of the various editions can’t agree on where the apostrophe should go, or even whether there should be one…


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