A Wonderland Find

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One Saturday afternoon, not too long ago, I visited a popular bookstall in Temple Bar here in Dublin.

I was instantly drawn to a fat ancient storybook and in my eyes, an early version of Alice in Wonderland. Propped up in a corner on the tiny shelf, it clearly pleaded attention.

The cheerful cover featured an animated discussion that appeared to be caught forever in mid-air. The moles with their showy shawls and shirts, the panicky White Rabbit, the shocked Mouse and a fashionable bird all stunned in their vibrant show of gaiety…  Anticipating an eager desire for refreshments, a watering-can waited, all ears.  Meanwhile, the back of the book displayed a splendid woodland scene.

These covers were nearly torn off the edge and ready to be dislodged from the spine at the next rough touch. Yet to me, the dangerous fragility was nothing that a roll of cellophane tape couldn’t work its magic on. The bookseller explained that the children’s book belonged to an elderly gentleman who had recently passed on. His family subsequently made the difficult decision to part with his childhood collection.

I opened carefully to the first blank page. Inside was pasted an elaborately patterned inscription with a line in tiny lettering that said Printed in Great Britain. It displayed a crimson typeface with the words Presented to. Someone had written very neatly in black ink – and this foiled only by a slight smudge – The Chilson Council School…. for Robb Wm. Smith for Proficiency in Geography from Mr. Wallace 1936.

This storybook had been handed to I could only assume, a delighted young boy.

How faithfully preserved it looked. The pages were naturally worn out with time but that was the book’s only crime. It wasn’t dog-eared in the least but instead signalled the impression that the past owner had perused his text very carefully and thoughtfully fingered the pages as he turned each one over. Not too, just for days and months but for years and years.

Inside were humorous b/w illustrations complete with the odd splash of colour. It looked like Robb had safeguarded his prized book for all his life. And then finally, it was time to let go.

I bought it, felt that I must and the joy was whole, almost as one would feel at the promise of a sacred redemption. I was thrilled and sad at the same time. That was how powerful; the hidden tale locked inside the pages of a visible one. Still, I turned the silent custodian and felt obliged to protect yet another Alice in Wonderland storybook almost as if a strangers legacy had been eagerly if not accidentally, befitted to me.

I considered this strange message of timelessness to be priceless. A friend in Toronto said, she would continue to preserve it on Robb’s behalf, if I ever had to let it go.

Today, I thought once more about the book’s owner and this with a diligent pensive air. I pulled the book off the shelf and ran my hands once again over the beloved pages as if it would bring the distant past closer for just a minute. What an excellent time of introspection. What a beautiful form of stillness!

I wondered if Robb’s excellence in Geography had later led him to a life of high adventure or perhaps a caring appreciation of foreign places and cultural treasures. Was he ever happy? Did he retain a notion for dreams and ideals in later life? The reality is that I will never know unless someday, the bookseller – and that too, if I see him again – willingly relates details of the family left behind.

Yet, how a ‘seasoned’ elegant object haunts a reader with secrets. To me, this mattered not even as the book crossed the ocean to reach another library in a different time and place…. a different century and age. They say a pair of eyes masquerades windows to lodge in the heart of an unsuspecting soul but a book just like this one, may mirror a finer trick.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Lovely and touching story Susan. You really are a compassionate soul.

    Best

    Anita

    Reply

  2. Posted by Meena Vyas on October 25, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    Wow..Susan what an awesome description..you should join up with a review panel for a publishing house…

    Reply

  3. Posted by The Quiet Busker on October 26, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Hi Susan, I am new to blogging and feel a little lost, I don’t know how to add stuff, to follow stuff etc but I found your blog through Ars Notaro – you commented on mine (thanks) it was called A Change of Name. I didn’t know how to leave a link to my blog (as I don’t really know where it is in the scheme of things!). I signed it Billy Blog with reference to the idea of changing my name.

    Anyway, enough rambling. I really enjoyed your story about the Alice book, it gave me goose bumps (twice) and I have decided that whenever I get goose bumps during the reading of a blog I am going to leave a comment! So yours was a 2 goose bump blog – high praise indeed (I don’t know how to draw a goose bump – which is perhaps why people use stars?).

    Your words and thoughts struck me as sincere and tender, there was a gentleness present.

    Another thing that struck me was that NOT knowing the full story behind the history of the book/the man who owned it, was what makes your story so charming. Also, your guesswork, spirit of imagination, eagerness to preserve the book and its half known past.

    It reminded me of a time I went to see Ianthe Brautigan talk about her father’s books (Richard) as they were being published again, but this time by Rebel Inc.in 2000.

    Ianthe told some great tales about her father but one thing I remember her saying that made me smile was that she thought that most people who owned a copy of her dad’s books had borrowed it from someone else and never given it back (consequently they had never read a brand spanking new copy). I felt a small surge of guilt, I had borrowed Revenge of the Lawn from a friend and never given him it back. He would ask me for it about once a month and I would make excuses and not return it until eventually he moved to Newcastle and we lost contact! I confessed all to Ianthe (I suppose I felt I had cheated her father of some much need dough) as I handed her a Rebel Inc version of the book to sign – she wrote “This copy is for Paul – a brand new copy to enjoy”. All i could think as I left the shop was – I am not lending this copy to anyone.

    Kind regards, The Quiet Busker.

    Reply

  4. Thanks Anita & Meena. Have replied you already on Facebook. 🙂

    Thanks for your very valuable comments, Quiet Busker. Really appreciate it. I’m sorry these comments were printed so late. Unfortunately, WordPress has changed things around on our dashboards that I wasn’t even aware there were comments waiting for me. I’ll be more alert next time.

    I liked your post and enjoyed the mildly teasing dry wit behind it.
    Would still like to see your photos and hear your music. I’ll perserve your comment here as poignant thoughts to return to again and again.

    There was also a sadness in the very real knowledge that Robb, who cherished his book so much had breathed his last. It felt like meeting a friend from somewhere far and long ago with the same passions as myself and that the Alice in Wonderland book had been an immortal messenger. At the same time, I was suddenly sharply aware of my own mortality. But it was also exciting to think what my own final reads would be and how a book could possibly at the end, help me trace my life to what it was at the start.

    I know you’ll understand this. Thank you very much, Quiet Busker. 🙂

    Reply

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