A Blind Date With A Book

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Have you ever been on a blind date with a book? I recently went on my first one thanks to an event my library had organized for Valentine’s Day. Many libraries and bookstores are playing Cupid with their patrons in the month of February by offering them the opportunity to go on a blind date with a book. Books are wrapped in brown paper to conceal their identity. You have to commit to reading a book without knowing its title or author. A genre or basic category could be marked or there could be a vague description or a few keywords pertaining to the theme to create mystery and suspense and pique your interest. Often we pick a book based on the cover but cover art can be distracting and even misleading by giving us the wrong impression of the content. As the old adage goes, never judge a book by its cover. Besides, who doesn’t like surprises? If you are someone who restricts yourself to certain genres, you could open up a new world by reading something you wouldn’t have read otherwise. You rate the date when you return the book after reading. You never know, you may meet your perfect match. And no hard feelings, if it doesn’t work out. Abandon the book and move on to the next one.

So, what book did I end up with? I was attracted to the cover that had the words ‘Storytelling and Fantasy’ on it. As I ripped off the brown paper, I saw a thin book entitled The Search after Hapiness ( I’ll get to the spelling mistake in a minute) and the author none other than the famous Charlotte Brontë. I have read, re-read and enjoyed the timeless classic Jane Eyre countless times. I can confidently say that it was one of the first books that made me a lifelong reader. If you take a random survey and ask people to name their hundred greatest books , I’m sure Jane Eyre would be included in many a list. I have also read The Professor and Villette by Brontë but I had never heard of this book before. For me, it was love at first sight as soon as I saw the name of the author. I was even more delighted to discover that the tale in front of my eyes was written by Charlotte Brontë in 1829 when she was just thirteen years old.

In the introduction to the American edition of the book, T. A. J. Burnett explains how the motherless Brontë children engaged in games of make believe to occupy their time in the remote moorland parsonage where they were raised. In June 1826, their father gave them a box of twelve wooden soldiers as a gift. The lonely and isolated children were very imaginative and they created a fictitious city called Glass Town that was conquered and colonized by their twelve heroes. The children themselves were the four genii who presided over the inhabitants of the city. Their games were inspired by the stories in The Arabian Nights which was part of their father’s library collection. Charlotte’s brother, Branwell Brontë, wrote a detailed account of these made up stories in a work entitled, The History of the Young Men from Their First Settlement to the Present Time. The Search after Hapiness is not part of the Glass Town stories but according to the preface to the tale by Brontë, the action is set in Glass Town and Charlotte’s favorite toy soldier named ‘The Duke of Wellington’ has an important role in the story. Brontë wrote the tale in her own hand and in minuscule letters in imitation of print. Her spelling and punctuation errors have been retained in the American edition of the book. The original manuscript has no illustrations but this edition has exquisite watercolors by artist Carolyn Dinan that add to the charm of the tale. When I started reading the book, I immediately noticed the glaring spelling mistakes and the long, winding sentences. I’m glad the editors decided to retain the errors as I think they help convey the youthfulness of the writing and enable us to understand the budding creativity of the author. I was also struck by Brontë’s impressive vocabulary and vivid imagination. The young girl couldn’t spell but she certainly had a way with words.

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The original manuscript of the book, written in miniature print by Charlotte Brontë.

As I started reading the tale, it seemed like I was flying on a magic carpet to the world of The Arabian Nights. I came across magnificent palaces, lush gardens, a subterraneous passage with a stone rolled to the entrance, globes of light and, of course, there was a magic genie thrown in for good measure. The plot itself is incongruous and implausible. Henry O Donell is a young man who leaves behind the city and the people he loves to go on a quest of happiness. During the course of his adventures, he meets Alexander de Lancy, a native of France, who is on a similar pursuit of happiness. They decide to travel together and come across a very old man who narrates his story of enslavement and release to them (the device of a tale framed within another tale is also reminiscent of The Arabian Nights). For some inexplicable reason or by a quirk of fate, Alexander gets separated from Henry. The latter, meanwhile, feels very nostalgic for the home he has left behind and bursts into tears. A mighty genie stands before him, ready to grant his wish and he is instantly transported back to his castle where he coincidentally bumps into Alexander who has become a rich merchant in Paris. And needless to say, they lived happily ever after in their separate cities. The search after happiness brings them back full circle to their own homes.

This book will not appeal to readers who are not familiar with the works of Brontë. In fact, they will probably dismiss the tale as puerile and absurd. It is replete with spelling errors and the rambling descriptions and the problematic syntax make it even more tedious to read. But for those who know Brontë and have enjoyed her oeuvre, it is a fascinating window into the mind of an imaginative and gifted child who would grow up to become one of the most celebrated authors of all time. It is also noteworthy that the story includes Charlotte’s earliest known poem, “In this fairy land of light.” The tale written through the eyes of a thirteen year old helps humanize an author whose reputation has grown to mythic proportions. The book made me wonder about the early writings of other famous authors and how reading juvenilia might help parents and teachers identify and encourage talent at a young age. As far as rating my date goes, I would say it was meant to be. I had no idea such a book existed and as I am a big fan of Charlotte Brontë, it was truly a match made in heaven!

The photos are from the public domain collection of the British Library.

A Bookworm’s Christmas Tree

The first time I came across a book tree, I couldn’t help letting out shrieks of delight! I was captivated by this fascinating objet d’art. It was a small tabletop tree in a local school, artistically arranged but inconspicuously placed on a side table. I’m glad it caught my eye. I later saw a huge one in my town library and since then I’ve been seeing them everywhere. I knew I had to attempt making one myself to satisfy my inner book nerd. Besides, it would be just the right tree for our family as all four of us are voracious readers. I also knew that arranging all my books together into one piece would be the perfect way to declutter for the holidays. The whole family was involved in this rewarding activity and each person got the opportunity to showcase his or her favorite books.

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For this year’s tree we used decorative book ends shaped like books (what else?) to adorn the top of the tree.

Assembling a book tree is an economical and eco-friendly project as you don’t need to buy anything. All you need are a few books and a few eye-catching decorations. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to assemble one yourself:

  1. Go around your house, collect your books and sort them by size. You will need books in a variety of shapes and sizes and a mix of paperbacks and hardcover books. You can choose to arrange your tree according to a theme like sports books, gardening guides and magazines or cookbooks, or you could stick to an eclectic mix. Make sure there are no library books buried in the pile. Imagine the hefty fine you’ll have to pay!
  2. Select an area to display the book tree. An ideal spot would be the corner of a room. If you have a large living space and hundreds of books, go ahead and build a gigantic one in the center of the room. It would make a stunning centerpiece! The corner of a room works well for smaller homes and is safer if you have young children around. With a corner tree you can hide the shabbier looking books behind, away from the main view.
  3. Place heavy and wide books like encyclopedias and dictionaries in a circle to create the base of the tree. I even put my children’s SAT  workbooks at the back of the tree. Place a large cardboard box or two smaller ones stacked one upon the other inside the circle to provide a sturdy base. They are going to be hidden anyway. Build a few layers of the same width and fill in the gaps with thin paperbacks or magazines. As you continue piling the books start narrowing the layers and taper off when you reach the top. When you reach the top you can stack one book on top of another. Let the titles face outwards if you want others to see and admire your collection. The arrangement doesn’t have to be orderly but we don’t want it to topple. In fact it’s more interesting if the books are placed a little haphazardly and there are gaps for you to put trinkets and knick- knacks. A little sloppiness is just fine and looks natural like a lived in home, a little cluttered but welcoming.
  4. Rummage through the house for an interesting tree topper. While a traditional topper like a star or an angel is always attractive, it’s more fun trying to find things that tie in with your theme like kitchen utensils, natural items such as pinecones, a mini poinsettia plant, a little gingerbread house, or you could simply top your tree with your favorite book. I came across an old ‘Anne of Green Gables’ doll belonging to my girls and made it the tree topper for my tree last year.
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Anne, the beloved literary character who is studious and fond of books sits atop this tree with her textbooks.

 

  1. Jazz up the tree by using bookmarks, book ends and little pocket books as decorations. Tuck them in between the books. You can even put in a library card, but don’t forget to remove it when you disassemble the tree. The best part is putting your little personal touches to the tree. It will smell heavenly too. There’s no need for artificial pine scents and air fresheners. You will have the perfect old book smell- dusty and musty with notes of sandalwood and a hint of vanilla.
  1. Wrap a string of lights around the tree, et voilà! Your bibliophile’s tree is ready to be on display. I prefer clear lights to make my books stand out more. LED lights are wonderful as they do not get hot.

If you don’t own many books, don’t despair. You don’t need a huge collection of books. A tabletop tree with just six to eight books would still make a great impact. I made a tiny tree with just ten classics from children’s literature. I used a cake plate as the base of the tree and placed a Jo March doll against the books. I thought the doll inspired by the delightful and literary-minded Jo from ‘Little Women’ made an apt decoration for the tree. An ‘Alice in Wonderland’ teapot depicting a scene from the Mad Hatter’s Tea party added just the right touch of whimsy for the top of the tree.

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What I enjoyed the most about assembling the tree was bringing out the books gathering dust on the shelves and giving them a new life, books that I even forgot I owned! I vowed to re-read some of the novels I had read years ago. I had forgotten that I was the proud owner of all the works of Forster and I was surprised to discover that I owned two copies of Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and three copies of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’. I immediately resolved to give them away as gifts to friends. What could be more comforting than getting back in touch (literally and figuratively) with your old books and rescuing them from oblivion?