On a train trip last fall from Nice to Paris, I sat in a crowded train compartment with my wife, watching people reading. At one point or another during the five hour trip, everyone in the compartment was reading something–a newspaper, a racy novel, a political manifesto, etc. The person in the seat next to me was immersed in Robertson Davies's Fifth Business, the first volume of the Deptford trilogy. I mistook the person for a Canadian because Davies was a Canadian author. A young man, decked in flashy, leather pants, was reading motorcycle magazines. An older lady, apparently just back from holidays in Spain or Portugal, was "multi-tasking". She munched on sandwiches, drank red wine, and read an assemblage of travel books, scandal magazines, and letters.
More people are reading now than ever before, even if we assume that reading patterns have changed. Contrary to urban legends or rural rumours, book production has doubled worldwide since the previous decade. Reading continues to have a major impact on the lives of people. Words have meaning, and meaning can alter our beliefs and the way we act.
In preparation for this exhibition, we sent out an e-mail to the Library staff. We told them that this exhibition would be a personal selection of memorable books. "Why are they memorable?," we asked. They are memorable because they have made a personal impact on us in some way. The books in question have changed our lives or given us a fresh perspective. We have taken delight in them and lived almost as characters within the texts themselves. Sometimes the books have bored or shocked us. We see the world differently as a result of reading these books. Our reactions in reading, and often our changed attitudes, are as diverse as the books themselves.
The books that have been selected by the Library staff are each unique. Some are children's books that were read in the formative years of life. Adele Petrovic discusses Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and the indomitable character of Jo March in her journey towards womanhood. Stuart Clarkson was more impressed by Christopher Robin than Winnie the Pooh. Earless Fosdick, the wonderful cat in Pierre Berton's The Secret World of Og, enchanted Lou Hale. Renu Barrett recalls reading Alice Adventures in Wonderland on hot summer afternoons under the shade of a Banyan tree in India. Sarah van Maaren notes that Beatrix Potter had the uncanny ability in her drawings and stories to give animals human qualities. In my own childhood experience the mysteries of the Hardy Boys surpassed all the adventures of Superman and other mythical heroes.
Although a few Library staff have opted for poetry (Cerberus, Byron's The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems, and Dante's Divina Commedia, for example), many of the books that have been chosen are novels. Fiction provides us with alternative universes where imagination mixes with reality. Renu Barrett, who has lived in the northern latitudes of the Canadian prairies, identified with the rugged landscape of northern Quebec, captured in Louis Hémon's Maria Chapdelaine. H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines was a reading companion on Gord Beck's first wilderness camping trip. Lynn Schneider saw herself in the role of Morag Gunn, deftly described in Margaret Laurence's The Diviners. When Stuart Clarkson read Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising in high school, he was disappointed by the questions on the book's test that focussed on the city of Halifax. W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind failed miserably to inspire Alessandro Erasmi in spite of the enthusiasm of Mrs. Nyilasi, his Grade 13 English teacher. In contrast Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rablelais's smutty novels published in seventeenth-century France, greatly entertained Mark MacEachern; Mark discovered that Rabelais's novels were just as vulgar as some contemporary literature he had been reading.
Works of non-fiction are an abiding interest of the Library staff. At the same time a work such as Ovid's Metamorphoses, chosen by Krista Godfrey, doesn't fit into any category of fiction or non-fiction. While it is easy to explain Renu Barrett's choice of Vasari's The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (a work of extraordinary scholarship from the sixteenth century), it is not entirely explicable–at least on the surface–why someone would point to Philip Gaskell's A New Introduction to Bibliography as a work of personal transformation (mea culpa!!). For Sheila Turcon, Bertrand Russell's controversial views in Marriage and Morals proved to be immensely helpful to her when own marriage was crumbling. Sheila was also inspired by the powerful anti-war message in Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain's evocative memoir of her tragic days as a nursing assistant during World War I. Brittain's feminism is echoed in the selection of Kathy Garay who comments on the positive influences of Dora Russell's biography The Tamarisk Tree and A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the enduring classic by Mary Wollstonecraft.
"For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them," so wrote John Milton in Aeropagitica, his eloquent defence of unlicensed printing in 1644. Books live on, long after their authors have ceased to exist. We draw intellectual and imaginative nourishment from books almost in the same way that we feed upon the food of the earth, breathe air, and enjoy the warmth of the sun. My many thanks to the Library staff who have contributed to this exhibition of memorable books.
Research Collections Librarian