The Matter Of Words

BookShelf

The street was cobbled. Perhaps it was raining. It’s not always wet, but it is usually cold in London in early January. It was barely afternoon and it might have been dark already. I’m sure I didn’t mind the cold pinching my skin that was more used to the hot African sun at that time of year than the chilliness that stroked my bare neck with its icy fingers. South Africans in London are not always prepared for true degrees of freezing.

I didn’t mind. It wasn’t the cold that had my attention right then.

It was at least 20 years ago. The highlights of those weeks backpacking through Europe and London have faded. What I remember with vivid clarity are the details: the snow I saw for the first time in Lucerne, the brave Italian bikers who didn’t care about the side mirrors they snapped off the cars as they whizzed down narrow Roman alleys, and the pillow cases at the inn under the train tracks in Avignon that smelled strongly of vinegar. I knew they were clean.

London was our last stop. My backpack felt heavy after lugging it for weeks on my back, and the cobbled streets were dangerously slick in the rain.

I stepped into the bookstore to move away from the wintry, poking fingers of imminent nightfall and found myself in a world of wonder.

This bookstore was no different to any other I’d ever been in: shelves and stacks and displays of novels and recipe books and travel guides, biographies and plays and the latest bestsellers. An entire carousel of Mr Men. It was all there as expected.

What was unexpected was my reaction. As if I had never been in a bookstore before, the frenzied desire to own them all wrapped itself around my heart like the scarf I had forgotten to bring: Dickens and Austen and George Eliot and every Brontë I could find, including Anne. Poems by Milton and Yeats and Seamus Heaney and a big fat anthology of the works of John Keats. Plays by Moliere and Strindberg and I’m sure a Shakespeare or two.

Somewhere between Robinson Crusoe and Lady Chatterley’s Lover I misplaced my jacket and all my wits. How I would transport my newly acquired, gargantuan stash of classics from London to Johannesburg in a backpack that was already weighing me down was of no consequence. Or even of consideration.

Today, my greatest challenge in that situation would be finding a wifi connection to download all those masterpieces of literature. I would log on to Amazon, maybe read a sample but probably not, click Buy and be done. I could do it while standing on the cobbled street in the cold twilight, possibly using the bookstore’s wifi. Swipe. Click. Adjust the collar of my jacket against the chill.

The books are heavy, weighted with the words, the truths of their authors. Journals of imagination and dreams, pages of exploration and fantasy. Their colorful covers, bright canvases of promise and adventure, guard the path along which we can’t wait to wander or race, meander or gallop.

I love my Kindle, I do. It’s light and nimble, easy to carry, and would occupy little more space than a pair of socks in a heavy backpack. It is a portal to a world of words and anticipation, a world that is truly at my fingertips. And that is nothing less than astounding.

But its shelves are flat and gray. There are no wrinkled spines standing upright or leaning a little to the right, urgently but quietly beckoning to the eager reader. There is no inscription waiting for me on the title page, the date of my sixth birthday underlined in blue pen at the top:

To our own darling Nicky,

Wishing you many happy returns of the day.

All our love and kisses

from your loving

Gran & Sonny

There is no favorite bookstore with every book I’ve been wanting to read beautifully displayed, and no bookstore owner to chat with or to tell me about a little-known gem. She has known all my children since they were born and every recommendation is a winner.

My backpack was heavier than I could have ever imagined, carrying those books home. I even bought a large duffel bag for the overflow. But the sight of them, 20 years later, in my bookshelf and the feel of them in my two hands is worth every last, heavy step.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, inspired by the prompt, “Something I used to love but now hate is…” or “Something I used to hate but now love is…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee, Allison (this week’s sentence thinker-upper) from The Latchkey Mom, and Kelly from Just TypiKel. Words matter.

BookCoverInscription

32 thoughts on “The Matter Of Words

  1. You made my heart sing as I remembered my first visit to Foyles in London in 1987 where I almost became overwhelmed at the vastness of what I was seeing in my store of choice :a BOOKSTORE. Only those who grew up in South Africa can grasp the shock of seeing a really giant bookstore 😀 My kindle is only for travel reading as I am one of those who have the emotional, sensual experience when I read a book. I just miss the turning of pages, going back to underline a profound thought and that effect of a great cover beckoning me to pull it out again and page through it. Thank you for stirring up memories.

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    • Exclusive Books does remain one of my very favorite bookstores in the world! I’m so happy this brought back lovely memories for you, Terry. Hope this weekend is a reading one :).

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  2. I also love my e-reader, but it could never replace a book.This – these words that touch me just as deeply as they would on an actual page – this is why. I’m going to go hug a book now. 🙂

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  3. How’s your back? Love that you lugged the books home. My son did the same after a London bookshop visit in 2006. He was 11 and was intent on purchasing as many books as he could carry and then some.
    Have you seen Notting Hill? Love the concept of a traveller’s bookshop. Still grin when I think of the chap who incessantly pops in looking for Winnie the Pooh books …
    I have a Kindle and use it mostly for travel. The thing I really miss when I use it is the ability to flit back and forth between the pages. The quick whisp of air that chills my face as I flit.
    I’m taking note of Dana’s comment and am off to hug a book. Now.

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    • My back recovered and even if it didn’t, so worth it! How wonderful that Henry was so mesmerized by the books he had to have. What is it about those London bookstores?? Love this: “The quick whisp of air that chills my face as I flit.” YES!

      I have seen Notting Hill but all I remember is Hugh Grant’s goofy grin. Will have to watch it again!

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    • Thanks Ma! I’m so happy I still have that book from Granny and Sonny. I remember when they gave it to me. I’m pretty sure I read it cover to cover. Love you xxx

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    • Thank you Em. Have you read Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians”? Or the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde? Both have themes of this spectacular immersion into a literary world… so unique and wonderful.
      xo

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  4. Nicky, this is absolutely beautiful. Words matter. Love it. I am a sucker for a book store. I cannot walk past one – I can’t do it. And the one you described, I may not have been able to leave. I will weep, weep, if ever there are no more bookstores. I will be the crazy woman on the news, chained to the last one. I am TEAM Paper Books!

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  5. I miss books — real books — as well. Although I find that real books are satisfying in fewer circumstances than I would have expected only a few years ago. Mostly, I look for real books for my kids or for times when an ebook would be problematic (like sitting on a beach or otherwise near water). I’ve found that I really don’t have much time for reading anymore, so being able to snatch a few minutes here and there for reading on my ebook reader (usually my phone) is precious to me. It’s the primary way that I can actually connect to books nowadays, so while real books are reminders of a wonderful past, they are spending more and more time with my records and CDs…..

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  6. So beautiful lovely Nicki. ❤ Your words always take me away – I could smell that bookstore in London. I love that you still have your treasures. I love books as well although I use my phone or the iPad almost always these days. Thanks so much for bringing your beauty to Finish the Sentence!

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  7. Awww, inscriptions! I miss those. I have saved some too. I love my Kindle and in fact was a very early adopter of reading electronically. I used to get books on my Palm Pilot thingy. But I do miss quaint bookstores and picking out a book. I can’t hardly stand to go to places like Books A Million and Barnes and Noble. They are too big and overwhelming and people aren’t just looking at books and reading. Side note: I saw someone shoplift in Barnes and Noble. I’ve also seen somebody sleeping in a chair like they were at home.

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    • You could get books on your Palm Pilot?! Did not know that.
      I agree about the big bookstores! (Hilarious about the sleeping person). Neighborhood bookstores are my best… It’s Independent Bookstore day in CA tomorrow. So great!

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    • I also love that my kids can see what I’m reading and I can see what they’re reading, and we can have spontaneous conversations about our books instead of asking “What are you reading there behind your plain black Kindle?”
      And the beautiful cover of Open Boxes is one of my favorite :).

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  8. I don’t think I’ll ever love the e-reader, but I am beginning to appreciate their merits. For me, there is nothing more wonderful than a bookstore. I love the books, the shelves, the smells and sounds of all that lives inside the walls of a bookstore. And honestly? I will spend many an hour in a Barnes and Noble, but I love a good old fashioned stand-alone bookstore. Wonderful post!

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  9. I have a love-hate relationship with my Kindle, for sure. I so prefer reading real books, even the big heavy hardbacks. I also love the way they line the bottom shelf of my bedside table. Seeing their jackets reminds me of their stories and sends me back into their pages, even if it’s just for a moment. Lovely post. xx

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