We plunged resident bibliophile Loretta Barnard into a pickle. Her library is on fire and there’s only time to save three books. The horror!
So here’s the scenario. Your house is on fire and you can only take three books before the place burns down. Put aside for the moment that you might prefer to take your passport, your jewellery, the photo albums, the Rembrandt or even the cat. This is how we’re playing it. Three books, that’s it.
It’s a bit of poser, no question, and obviously it’s a very personal, very subjective exercise. Do you save your much loved, dog-eared copy of Pride and Prejudice, the one you’ve had for years and years, or do you go for the sentimental choice? Winnie the Pooh, a first edition first issue of Superman, the beautiful edition of Keats’s poems you received on your eighteenth birthday, or perhaps, in keeping with the theme of this exercise, your well-thumbed copy of Dante’s Inferno? Actually, if you owned a first edition first issue of Superman, you’d probably want to hang on to that.
Clearly, everyone will have their own preferences, and the esteemed editor of The Big Smoke is hoping that some of you will offer your own three books for the edification of our readers. Here are my three choices, along with a sort of review of each, the emphasis being on the “sort of”.
First off, there’s a massive old Bible that’s been in my family since at least the 1870s. It’s large and forbidding and is known in the family as the “Spooky Bible” because it scared the bejesus out of us when we were kids. All those Old Testament stories of a vindictive and capricious God, reacting to his people with smiting and what have you. I mean, poor old Job, just to mention one hapless victim of a petulant God, had a pretty rough time of things.
There’s a picture of Abraham, who in obedience to God’s order, is about to plunge a knife into his son Isaac. Young Isaac is splayed across a rock, vulnerable and weakened, and Abraham looks altogether too competent with that blade. It was a powerful image to a little girl, and possibly set me on my path to atheism.
Looking at it now, it’s quite a beautiful tome, chockablock with intricate, evocative etchings and imposing columns of scripture. The illustrated pages are protected by individual leaves of tissue paper. The Bible holds holy pictures, death notices, embroidered greeting cards, pressed flowers, and even a caul – a rather macabre keepsake from the infant head of an aunt. It was brought to Australia by an Irish ancestor and has been handed down the generations, so it is a weighty tome, both literally and figuratively.
It would have to be saved from the flames, lest the wrath of ancestors be visited upon me.
Two books to go and the pressure’s on. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam illustrated by Edmund Dulac? David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, inscribed by the author? A first edition of Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar? Musica, a gorgeous classical music reference book that I was personally involved in producing and which is very close to my heart (and to make it even harder, a book that is not available in Australia or online)?
Mmmm, I’ll stick to music but something a bit more left field.
Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, compiled by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, is the “story of jazz by the men who made it”. In spite of the sexist subtitle, I’d save this book because not only is it a first edition (1955), but it has been autographed by some very big jazz names – Louis Armstrong, Edmond Hall and Billy Kyle. It was given to my son by an old family friend who made no secret of the fact that she knew one of those men in the biblical sense.
Shapiro and Hentoff interviewed literally hundreds of jazz musicians, singers and managers and produced an entertaining, anecdotal yet comprehensive picture of the American jazz scene from its beginnings in New Orleans through to Chicago, New York and elsewhere. It covers the craze for narcotics, the swing era, the development of modern jazz, and it’s all related by the people who were there. It’s informative, down-to-earth and well worth reading if you’re into jazz history of the first half of the twentieth century. It’s available online. The edition in my house is a one-off simply because of those signatures, so it’s saved from the conflagration!
My final choice is a compact volume (only 7 x 10cm) published in 1837, of Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad, the great epic poem about the effect of the wrath of Achilles on the outcome of the Trojan War. Although Pope’s translation first hit the bookshops back in 1715, an 1837 edition is still pretty old. The type is rather small, so it doesn’t make for easy reading, but the book itself is edged in gold and it’s lovely to hold, conjuring images of times and people long gone.
The book is a bit battered by over 178 years of use, but it’s a precious little volume and because it’s so tiny, I could pop it into my pocket and try to save another book from this horrendous blaze. But that would be cheating!
Three irreplaceable books have been saved from turning to ashes. What would you save?