Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Treasury of Books Lost and Found (3)

If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across it if I try.
Marianne Moore

Having a tendency to prefer rummaging in dusty bookstores I almost never purchase books that are new; assuming, of course, that we are referring to chain bookstores, less often would it be a book I know nothing about; still more rarely would it be a novel whose cost has not yet fallen. They simply do not carry my sort of price and they lack the dark corners that inspire me to delve and dig and lose myself in musty stacks.
I had always been of the mindset that never would I purchase from an airport bookstore.
Exactly two years ago on this very day- and the honest truth is that this piece was intended but not for such coincidental timing- I left Texas and returned to Ireland whereupon to spend an unknown amount of time apart from my Spouse while we planned out the next part of our lives.
I was lost; standing in Austin International Airport at 7 AM having waved farewell to Spouse and unsure when I could return to the United States I was hopelessly sinking in a swamp of unfamiliarity. I had exactly twenty dollars in my pocket and goodness knows when I would have an opportunity to spend it. I decided there and then to find a book, break all my rules and lose myself in others' words for the duration, at least, of the flight.
I knew that I needed something solid to cling to- as far-fetched as it sounded, I needed an indomitable and unsurmountable doorstop of a book to match my upcoming struggle. I was faintly aware that airport bookstores were not best known for their detailed range and that a careful, fastidious reader might not unearth anything odd or quirky, or indeed find any book that had not been commercialised to the point of giving the impression that one had already read it ten times over.
I scooped Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell' from the table with vague reserve and weary expectation. I read, on the back cover, the novel described as being
"...tangled and twisting as old London streets or dark English woods..."
It was about magic, and England, and rain and fog, and manners and mystery and libraries. It was more than 800 pages thick. It was priced at 17 dollars and 95 cents.
The book opened just this way:
"Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic. They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed anyone by magic- nor ever done anyone the slightest good."
I had already dragged the mighty volume to the counter by the time I had reached the next paragraph. There was no doubt.
I have since found that there is a direct proportional link between my fondness for a book and the slowness with which I read each page. From the time I bought the novel until I landed in Ireland I read, I believe, about five pages but I read those few time and again and immersed myself entirely into the unwritten worlds between the words.
I took two months in entirety to read 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.' I was captivated by every word, every line, every single beautiful and magical page until the very last leaf was turned with a sigh. Nothing could alleviate the long wait Spouse and I would have and nothing in the world could ease the turmoil but I was glad then and am still so for chancing upon the book.
USA Today mused about it:
"What kind of magic can make an 800-page novel seem too short? Whatever it is, debut author Susanna Clarke is possessed by it."
Whatever the spell, it worked a fortuitous, powerful effect on me at that peculiar time in my life and I have not forgotten the joy that reading it brought to my heart. I have read nothing quite like it before or since. It is a marvellous experience to dip oneself into.


Nan said...

I have started this book twice, and put it down again. I really, really enjoyed what I read, but I guess I just couldn't bear being away from other books for the length of time it would take to read it. Isn't that silly? I keep looking at it, trying to come up with a scheme to read it. Last year I tried five pages a day, and I just may try that again. That should be enough to keep me in the book, while being able to read my others as well. What do you think? :<)

Thanks for your nice words about my blog. I'm amazed when someone 'finds' me.

I'll be spending more time visiting you.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

It's great to hear from you! Thanks for visiting :)
I know what you mean- sometimes I have many books on hand at the same time and could get many more read in the time it takes to read one large novel. There just isn't enough time for them all :(
I personally saw this book as being more of an experience in style, substance, atmosphere rather than being plot driven. My husband picks it up again every few months and reads a page or two- and remembers exactly where he stopped. That works perfectly. I didn't read it with expectation of a conclusive plot or anything like that, just an experience in words. I found it easy to do that because I hadn't ever read a novel like it. That's why it took me so long- I savoured it! Imagine- it took Susanna Clarke ten years to write it!


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