The Absolute Book is one of our picks of the year and you should buy it for someone you love for Christmas. A story that sticks like a biddi-bid, Elizabeth Knox said on Twitter the other day. Here, she writes about the books that stuck in her own psyche – the books she was given as a child.
We were a house of books, but they were Dad’s. There were several we’d take down and look at – The Family of Man, The Artist in His Studio. There was some scary stuff in the first, but my parents still let us look at it. That book was for us in that way – the two girls old enough to be interested in books. For us, despite the “Man” in one title and “His” in the other. But that was my childhood – everything for me, nothing about me.
We got books as gifts only once we could read. Mary, three years older, read me her Christmas books. Heidi was the first. It was still light when we went to bed, so the ‘lights out’ rule didn’t apply. There was no school the next day, and Mary would read for as long as she could see, ending up sitting on the windowsill, to me just a voice and silhouette in the blue dusk. The following year it was Emil and the Detectives, which I didn’t like nearly as much, despite Dad’s insistence that, unlike Heidi, it was modern and unsentimental.
Before I could read I had only one book of my own – also a Christmas present. Johnny’s Hunger Strike, which Mum got me to try to encourage a bit of self-understanding. Johnny is too busy playing, too busy to leave his pets and toys and sit down to lunch – having left his breakfast half eaten in his hurry to get on with his day. The book ends in tears. The kitten and puppy are tired and hungry and overexcited too. Someone has bitten someone else – I don’t remember who – everyone is howling, and toys are broken. “What a mess!” I thought when Mum read it to me. I didn’t see how it applied to me. I couldn’t remember forgetting to eat. Besides, when Mary’s mouth was full was one of the few times I could get a word in edgewise. A plate full of sandwiches was an opportunity to have my say.
We didn’t get many books as presents – well, not enough to, over the years, be able to see a pattern or form any ideas about why these books and not others. We didn’t even know what other kids were reading till they told us – and if they told Mary she often wouldn’t find it interesting enough to tell me.
I do remember Dad’s friend Peter Janssen turning up for lunch a couple of days before Christmas with books for us – for Mary, who could read them – but Peter made a point of looking me in the eyes and saying they were mine too, and Sara’s once she was old enough to show any interest. Then Peter explained his present by telling Dad off. Dad sat with his lips pressed shut, laughing soundlessly, I think out of love for the cheek of his friend. Peter, brainy, acerbic, gay, saying, “Look here Knoxsie, you can’t be such a snob about the things that everyone loves. These books might be Christian propaganda as you say, but there’s a lot more to them. Every other child is reading them and it’s practically cruelty to children to keep these books from them. As for The Hobbit, I know you think that fantasy is a poor cousin to science-fiction and that this and Lord of the Rings are hippy books. But I guarantee your girls will love this book.”
Mary read me all the Narnia books, but The Hobbit only in excerpts because by then school was back and the days were shorter and we weren’t allowed to keep the lights on.
The same year that Mary got Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family for Christmas and Sara got Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers, I was given the only unsuitable book – the one we all wanted – a Monkees Annual. Annual, I think. I don’t remember and I’m not going to Google it because things I don’t remember are privileged rarities and I like to leave them alone.
That same Christmas we borrowed my uncle Keith’s bach in Waikanae (the bach we lived in for half next year after Mum’s nervous breakdown following the Wahine storm). It was the bach’s books that gave me my first big book revelation – one I probably should have had on entering my first library – Khandallah, I think, though sometimes I think Ngaio. When I walked into that library I wasn’t overwhelmed by an infinity of books, because I was used to the shelves and shelves of Dad’s and I didn’t look at the library books as individuals, just packed shelves. I was zeroing in on one shelf and the books of myths and legends that summoned me as if they knew I belonged to them.
My revelation came to me on a New Year’s Eve when everyone was outside, and no one was bothering to put kids to bed, but I was tired so I sat down between the armchair Dad had occupied most of the evening, and a bookshelf. It was a nice child-sized space. I looked at the books and had my delayed how-many-books-are-there-in-the-world moment, which wasn’t about shelves and shelves or rooms and rooms, but thrillers by Alistair Maclean, historical romances by Frank Yerby, and anthologies of ghost stories. It was the idea that someone else’s house might have very different books on its shelves. Keith was Dad’s older brother, but his taste seemed alien. But those books were also for me – the collection of Chinese ghost stories was so for me that I spent every moment I wasn’t on the beach reading it and every moment I wasn’t able to read it – because the lights were out – lying in my bunkbed feeling the book’s ghosts blowing in my ears.
By the time I was a teenager, we were getting book tokens instead of books. If Dad wanted to use a book to prod me towards or away from anything he’d proffer one from his own library, inscribed “To my daughter Elizabeth”. Richard Jefferies in response to my rhapsodies about nature. Mrs Humphrey Ward in response to I still haven’t worked out what (and I wish I’d asked him). He gave me a thesaurus for my twenty-first birthday – and I passed it on to my son on his twenty-first.
I remember using my book tokens on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon books and Doc E E Smith’s Lensman series. I remember nothing at all about the Smith – just a stretch of empty time when I’d wake up and read, and eat breakfast after noon, and still manage not to smash my toys or bite the cat nestled behind my knees.
It’s been years since anyone gave me a book for Christmas – until this year, when my friend Francis sent me Sophia Samatar’s Winged Histories. My purchases are all Kindle, since I hope not to perish crushed by books. My husband Fergus was interested to know why I’d wanted this one in hard copy? I couldn’t remember wanting it, or knowing about it. As such it was as magically free of planning and knowledge as those first few books of childhood. I was almost sorry to remember that Francis had said he was sending me a book.
I’m reading it now. I can see how it is for me, and also a little bit about me too – which just goes to show how long I’ve been in the world.
The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.