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The Scrivener: A Personal Significance

With infectious enthusiasm Brian Barratt introduces us to some of the special books in his life.

For more of Brianís wonderful words please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit his intellectually invigorating Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

'Ooh, what a lot of books. Have you read them all?'

There are a few thousand books in this room, and more in other rooms, and I haven't read them all from cover to cover. Many are reference books. There are about 50 dictionaries. There's a good sprinkling of publishers' samples. There are a few misbound copies which booksellers tend to bring home. There are well-meaning but unread gifts.

'Which is your favourite book?'

When you've been reading for over 65 years, there have been favourite books of all kinds during different periods. Some stay in mind and are read again, often with new insight in later years. There are, however, 'special' or 'significant' books from all periods. I'll just waddle round the room and select a few from the distant past . . .

. . . When I was little more than knee-high to a grasshopper, my mother used to read to me from 'Robert Francis Weatherbee', a tiny book by Munro Leaf. It was first published just one year before I was born. My old copy has long since disappeared. In its place, I have an American version, published in 1965. I can still delight in the whimsy, the repetition, and the rhythm which Ma knew I loved, particularly the key sentence, printed almost like this on one small page:

But Robert Francis

Each Christmas, one of my sisters gave me 'The Daily Mail Annual for Boys and Girls'. In front of me now, I have the 1945 edition, which cost 6/- (six shillings). There are stories, informative articles, 'The Nipper' comic strips, and wonderful drawings by several artists including Leslie Illingworth, whose political cartoons were a feature of The Daily Mail during WWII. (Alas, it is not the newspaper it used to be.) There are also excellent photographic supplements on a variety of topics such as 'In Which They Serve' (battleships), 'Very Young' (baby animals), and 'Our Empire'. Such a lot to satisfy a small boy with an acquisitive mind.

The landscape format Penguin Modern Painters is a series which has long since disappeared from the market. I bought a few titles, including Edward Hopper, published in 1949 for 3/6 (three shillings and sixpence). Not everyone likes Hopper's rather wistful 'naive realist' paintings; it's a matter of taste. However, one of them, 'Early Sunday Morning', was my most successful stimulus item when I was teaching creative writing in the 1990s. A picture of a row of almost identical little shops, with not a person in sight, inspired a remarkable variety of stories about, guess what: people.

In stark contrast, I have van Gogh (which, by the way, is not pronounced 'van go') in the Fontana Pocket Library of Great Art. Published in about 1954, it is one of several in the series which I relished when I discovered French Impressionism and other schools of Art. Those little books cost about four shilling each. 55 years later, I still love the French Impressionists, especially Renoir and Pissarro, and have been in raptures when viewing some of the originals at exhibitions in Melbourne.

Meanwhile, exploring all facets of religious experience, I bought 'Fourteen Lesson in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism' in August 1951. Yes, it is a rather strange title, a reprint of a much older edition, and it's by someone who used an Indian pseudonym, Ramacharaka. But this book, and his other titles, did lead me towards a more serious study of the different Yoga philosophies and other aspects of what he call Hinduism, in more authentic sources. In that way, though I haven't looked at it for years, it is a significant book for me.

Here's another contrast: 'The Complete Home Entertainer', published by Odhams Press. This is a 1948 reprint which I bought in 1951 for 10/6 (ten shillings and sixpence or, as my father would have said, half a guinea). Home entertainment alongside Oriental Occultism? Well, yes. The list of contents includes such delights as Word Games for the Fireside; Potted Personalities; Simple Conjuring; Scientific Magic; Card Games; Picnic and Garden Games. Its 510 pages were a veritable goldmine of ideas for a young magician and would-be entertainer. It was also useful in later years when I had to find new activities for a Youth Club attended by up to 50 kids (and neighbours complained about the noise). There are several other Odhams Press books on my shelves but we can't include them all, even if they were special in their time.

Moving from the 1950s to about 1960, and to fiction, I still have my first copy of William Golding's penetrating allegorical novel 'Lord of the Flies' in a Penguin Books edition for 3/-. It was probably published at 2/6 but this copy was bought in Harare (then known as Salisbury), in the middle of Africa, so it would have cost a little more. It is my first copy and it is falling apart, because a few years ago I spent a great deal of time analysing the characters, motifs and archetypes and writing about them. My second copy is a Faber and Faber paperback which I bought last year for $17.95 as a back-up. Half a century makes a difference to prices, doesn't it?

Also in the 'literature' section there is a copy of 'The Poetical Works of Rupert Brooke', the second edition published by Faber and Faber in 1970. By then, prices were rising; this book cost £1.25 in the new British currency. We didn't study Rupert Brooke at school, of course, but my sister had a copy which would have been the first edition published in the 1940s. As a boy, I loved reading it, and eventually bought my own copy. Because of the link with and memory of my sister, it has a personal significance.

There we are, eight books from long ago ó not the best or finest or greatest of their kind, but simply special.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009


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