I am currently reading MM Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. Because it is close to 1,000 pages long, and because my reading time these days is relegated to the late evenings, when I’m so sleepy that sitting down to read inevitably leads to drooping eyes and a slipping book, “currently” has been going on for a while. The thick tome, with its cover curled upwards from being held open, has been an integral part of the living room landscape for weeks, alternately on the side table, the sofa, the kitchen counter, and the third step of the staircase up to the bedroom (the first two being within the reach of the pudgy paws of a one and a half year old).
During this time, I’ve had ample opportunity to remember seeing my own mother read the very same book, about 25 years ago. One image in particular stands out in mind: my mother in a low-slung, striped chaise longue on the rough and uneven terrace of a spare, stone house atop a hill in Corsica, France. Her hair is dark, her short sleeved top is brown, maybe reddish, she’s wearing cream-colored capris, and she’s sitting in the shade of the house near a the long wooden table at which we took most of our meals. The image is vivid because of all the other impressions associated with it. A long, timeless series of beach days stretching endlessly ahead of me in the way that summer days—back when they were blissfully unstructured—appeared to me as a child. The hot, dry aroma of thyme and rosemary growing wild on the scraggly Corsican hillsides. The moist coolness of the inside of the house with its sparse and rugged wooden furniture and occasional bats. The wild hogs and ambling donkeys who came to root about the house and knock at the shutters with their snouts and muzzles. The clammy-and-rough feeling of removing a one-piece, sand-filled bathing suit after the last dip of the day in the sea, and the way the bathing suit ends up all rolled up onto itself and inside out and unpleasantly cold against sun-warmed skin. The sparkling turquoise of the Mediterranean waters lapping at the strip of golden beach at the bottom of the hill. I knew nothing of the contents of The Far Pavilions at the time, and in fact they bear no relation to this setting since they take place in 19th century Northern India, but these are my memories of my mother reading this book.
Fast forward to now. Seven-year old K has noticed the book, given how long it’s been sitting around. She’s delighted in the fact that I am using a bookmark of her creation, a white and red laminated strip of paper with her name crookedly spelled out in crayon, affixed to which is a piece of twine strung with five brightly colored plastic beads. She’s asked me “So what is The Far Pavilions about anyway?” She’s noticed that the cover has become warped with use. We are not in a locale with a particularly striking set of sights or smells, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, upon seeing this same tome many years from now, she has a sudden memory of her sister at the age of 20 months, eagerly extending her chubby fingers to try to grasp at the beads that dangle so tantalizingly from the bookmark. Or if she recalls the peaceful quiet of Sunday afternoons with her father on his computer and her mother reading, spending companionable “quiet time” together while the baby naps, and then having tea time all together, with a proper set of china cups and of course some cookies.
Perhaps I’m romanticizing the whole thing, perhaps she won’t have a single memory of it, but there are other books from my past whose physicality brings me back to very specific times and places (for example my stained copy of Watership Down which I read at the age of 11 in a train cutting through the French countryside, and on which I spilled a bottle of apple juice), and because of this I suspect she’ll have similar memories.
But only for a while. For in the age of e-books, the collection of memories associated with a specific copy or edition of a specific title—not the memories of its contents but the memories of the time and place in which one read them, of the person one was at the time—will be moot. I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite here; I’m ready to embrace certain aspects of the whole e-book wave, and it’s entirely possible that my own book will come out as an e-publication. But no one can tell me there isn’t some nostalgia in which to indulge here.
What are some of your own memories associated with your reading of certain books? Do you still have those volumes on your shelves?