Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The Book That Made Me

A certain high street bookseller (whose name I won't give, but it begins with W and rhymes with 'Porterstones') is running a project/marketing campaign* at the moment called 'The Book That Made Me.' Like most English students, books have been making my mind for as long as I can remember - possibly since I first read Dick King Smith's Sophie stories and decided to become a lady farmer when I grew up - and I don't think they've finished making it yet. But the book that contributed most to the literal making of me is one I've never read, and the copy I own is too close to total spinal collapse for me to risk reading it now:

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tressell.

According to Grandma, this was the book that began Socialist Sybil; she wrote in her memoirs:

"I read it - and re-read it - and all became clear. I had borrowed it from the West Ham Public Library and just could not bring myself to part with it, so I told them I had lost it. They charged me 2 shillings. I stuck the receipt for this money in the front of the book, and have it still – one of the few books rescued from the rubble after the bombing in 1941**.

(West Ham Libraries receipt for 2 shillings, stuck inside the cover)

For years, I took no active part in any political movement, but read as much as possible. Then, in about 1936, the publisher Victor Gollancz started up the Left Book Club, and this was just what I needed. Members received a book a month, with other optional purchases on offer, and a publication called “Left News”. We formed the West Ham Left Book Club group – I was the convenor (I suppose I was about nineteen) and we met monthly to discuss the Book of the Month."

She goes on to describe trying out Labour Party meetings ("and very boring they were, too" - some things, I suspect, never change) before leaving in favour of "something with more fire in its belly" - the Communist Party - aged 21. "We did not think we were going to change the world – we knew we were!" she writes.

It was through left-wing politics that she met my Grandfather, and by inheriting the same ideology that their son met my Mum, many years later, in the Communist Party; they lived in (mostly) cheerful heathen sin for 25 years before accepting middle-aged bourgeois life and getting married when their bastard offspring, my brother and I, were 11 and 9 respectively. 

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a book I've never read, made me, and is one of many reasons why I hope with all my heart that e-books will never fully replace their paper equivalents.*** I own an e-Book reader (of which I will not name the brand, but it begins with K and rhymes with 'spindle') and in many ways it's great; it let me keep a library's worth of fictional universes with me when I was away from home for nearly a year. But part of my grandparents' lives and mine is in the actual, physical pages of the falling-apart book my Grandma half-stole from a West Ham library. Real books, with covers you can stick receipts to and write your name on, are something magical - not because of the fictional worlds they take us into, but because they preserve other people's real ones.

*Delete according to current cynicism level.

**The family house was bombed in the Blitz, while everyone was in the cellar - more on this in a later post.
***The next most significant is that it's much harder to judge people based on their train reading material if it's on a screen than if's between covers.