They hold such power, don’t they? To open your mind to new ideas, to transport you to places and through situations you would otherwise never experience.
And, as we all know, with power comes the possibility of danger. So many books have expanded my horizons, saved my life even. But a few….
The first of the lot was A Bear Called Paddington and all his successors. Very lovely, gentle stories about an orphaned bear from darkest Peru who makes a new life with the Brown family in London. They were such a sweet and comforting part of my childhood.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a few years ago, Alan and I got a dog. A lovely little dog with a very expressive face. So expressive, that I’m almost sure I know what he’s thinking. So sure that I have the most deep, wide-ranging, totally one-sided conversations with him all the time we’re together. Honestly, anyone following us while we’re out on a walk together would really wonder about me.
But, having been raised on the magic of Paddington, I just assume that not being able to physically hear what Ruffles is saying in no way implies that he isn’t actually saying it. And sometimes those conversations are so vivid in my memory that when I wander into the kitchen and bid him a fond good morning and he doesn’t answer, I wonder what’s wrong. Why is he giving me the silent treatment? Oh. Right. He can’t actually talk.
Leaving the realm of make-believe bears behind, we encounter Little Women. About the lovely March sisters, each of whom had special gifts, all of whom tried to better herself each and every single day. Which, for a guilt-ridden pre-teen, leads to a lot of angst.
But I could deal with that, given enough later-in-life therapy. It was the fact that Beth, the perfect sister (spoiler alert) died that caused me the most trouble. Not her actual death. You kind of saw that coming. I mean how could such a perfect, gentle and shy creature ever survive the adult world?
And besides, Jo was my favourite sister. She had faults, for goodness sake. She had adventures. She lived to the end of the book and beyond.
No, it was the fact that she lived and died in a book that gave me the trouble. Because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this about books, but you can turn the pages back just as easily as you can turn them forward. Don’t like that Beth died? Flip back a few chapters and there she is, alive again!
This left an impression on me that I wasn’t really aware of until my own sister died. And, no matter how I tried, or where I looked, I could not find the way to flip the pages back. And as the tenth anniversary of her death approached, some deep, unknown part of me fully expected a commemorative edition to come out. My deep disappointment the day after when I finally realized that this had been my unconscious hope gave me an inkling into just how much books have ruled my life.
The summer I turned sixteen, I was loafing about the house, being an adolescent. My father, an even bigger book addict than I, handed me a copy of The Metamorphosis, which is about a man who wakes up one morning to discover that he has somehow turned into a giant bug. I don’t know what he was expecting, but from then on, waking up dipped from being a major annoyance to being a minor trauma. Every morning for the rest of the summer I would keep my eyes clamped shut for as long as I could and then, when my mother was ready to throw a bucket of water over me, I would slowly open one eye…
And feel such relief that I still had arms and legs instead of little bug feelers. Whew!
Then I discovered the works of John Wyndham, an English dystopian science-fiction writer. The Kraken Wakes was about something deadly with tentacles. After reading that, bathtime was a challenge.
“There’s nothing in the tub!” my sister would shout encouragement from beyond the bathroom door. “Just get in! And hurry up! It’s my turn next!”
The Midwich Cuckoos was about a small English village. One night all the men go down the pub and all their wives get pregnant. And at first they’re all really pleased with themselves until they realize, “Hang on, I was down the pub…..”
Mayhem ensues and one of the things that I comforted myself with when I was unable to have babies was that at least I wouldn’t be party to the end of civilization as we know it.
By far the worst of the lot, as far as my ability to cope with life is concerned, was The Day of the Triffids. Lovely, gorgeous plants who want us all dead. I remember that damned book every single time I go out to try some gardening. And after about an hour or so, I have to go inside, have a cup of tea and calm the heck down.
It hasn’t all been bad, though. I have even been able to find some good in some of these books. The Paddington series, for example is a really nice one to turn to when my own attempts at DIY go wrong, as they so often do. I comfort myself that I’m having a Paddington Bear moment and make myself a cup of tea.
How about you? What books have ruined your life?