For Marie, in honor of the many amazing books that have contributed to shaping us into who we are, and in memory of our childhood, of which, undoubtedly, the best part is remembering.
In a childish, “I-wanna-do-like-mommy” reaction to many posts about books and reading, I suddenly find myself missing my own books. Looking up and around from the computer, my eyes wander to an annoyingly empty set of shelves and where books should be aligned, there is nothing more than filling – papers and DVDs and things and stuff. The books, you see, were left behind on so many occasions, so many extreme departures, so many radical moves. They were heavy and held me back, they equaled to more than a few suitcases, they were a ball at the end of a chain, despite all the affection I had for them. And so, slowly, I began drifting away from paper; because for some strange reason, I grow attached to good books and resent having to give them away or leave them behind. So I probably figured unconsciously that if I could no longer read, I would write instead.
My love of books goes back so far it becomes blurry and anecdotal. I began, as probably every child ever has, by liking images. But in my young specialist’s mind, the proper ratio of text versus photos had to be achieved in order to make a book valuable. Too much text and my interest was diluted. Too little and I felt cheated of the pertinent information to complement and explain the images. The first serious book I remember being given arrived on my 7th birthday. It was an photo encyclopedia of sharks written by Cdt. Jacques-Yves Cousteau. I treasured it and treated it with the utmost respect, reading it over and over again, learning to differentiate species and slowly understanding that sharks weren’t monsters but animals, like us. I still marvel at the fact that this very book might well have been a trigger and could in part be responsible for the 15 wonderful years I have spent working under the sea.
Then there were a series of even bigger color books on animals. Large format, bright shiny glossy paper and amazing full-page pictures, they were, for many years, the thing I wished for most at Christmas and on birthdays. I would open them only partially to protect the binding and treat them as if their pages had been made of silk, or maybe gold.
Later came a few real encyclopedias, not so elegantly illustrated but whose value and relevance was highly increased in my eyes by the amount of information they contained. This was long before the internet had even been thought of by a few brilliant minds and books were the ultimate source of information; the sense of power and knowledge gained from looking up a complicated word was a high. It was important. It was a ritual, about turning pages, looking up and down lists, selecting, analyzing, digesting, linking to more, and beyond.
There were many imageless books too, at first read out loud to us at bed time, then picked back up on my own and savored many times over. One of those, or rather three of those, were Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of his childhood memories, Les souvenirs d’enfance: La gloire de mon père, Le château de ma mère, Le temps des secrets. My parents’ copies, which I held on to for so many years, were in a beautiful limited edition, hand cut, numbered in the 3000 range and printed on Velin paper. I have read them so many times I almost know them by heart. They echoed to my own childhood and populated it with healthy adventures and endless games that even the reading of Robinson Crusoe, White Fang, The Last of the Mohican’s and Ivanhoe haven’t matched.
Later as a teenager enamored with climbing, I would devour Premier de Cordée and Annapurna, premier 8000, and then run outside and climb up the tallest pine tree in front of the house, anchor my double 8mm rope and belay from the top, using the classic method and burning my bottom and shoulders with sheer enthusiasm and a little too much speed. I would climb up the south face of the villa, hanging on to the window ledges and shutters, cut across to the overhang of the balcony, set my homemade artificial climbing ladders and work my way to the other side, suspended from the roof, pretending to be Gaston Rébuffat on the Drus in the middle of the cruelest storm, with “the bees” flying all around announcing the imminence of lightning strikes.
And here I am, missing all those books and writing about it. The first serious set back to my book collecting happened many years ago when I came back one day from the Caribbean to find that my storage place in Montreal had been broken into and my huge collection of vinyls and books was gone. I learned the hard way not to get too attached to things. But books have a habit of gathering around you any way, and as I attracted more to my shelves, I kept having to deal with departures and systematic change.
Most of what I still own in terms of bound paper and printed prose is now piled up in many boxes, in Beloeil, QC. Some day soon, I hope to finally be able to retrieve them. I wonder what I will think of them after so many years. I used to read mostly in French. It still is my favorite language for literature, even though one must accept that so much is only available in English it would be a shame ignoring it. But will Marcel Pagnol, Maurice Herzog, Reinhold Messner, René Barjavel, Robert Merle, Roger Frison-Roche, JRR Tolkien and the others still make me dream and travel in my mind to imaginary places, or have the world of internet and my own travels forever interfered with the inner voyage, and changed the flavor of words into a flavor of images?