For the love of a good dog-eared book
Three months into my latest stint of retirement – yes, this is my second go at it – I’ve become an advocate for a more relaxed way of life, one in which tomorrow offers the opportunity to do whatever doesn’t get done today.
And so it happened the other afternoon, prompted by the sudden loss of yet another contemporary and feeling rather wistful, that I abandoned the usual domestic chores and sat down to sort through my book collection – as you do.
I’ve made a promise to my kids that when I shed my mortal coil, there won’t be a mess left behind. My possessions will be in some semblance of order and I’ll cull the unnecessary here and now.
As I sat on the floor in front of the bookcase, surveying the task ahead with an empty carton for discarded volumes by my side, it occurred to me that I’m not so much a reader as a lover of books.
I love their fragile yellowed pages, their sweet mustiness, and their heartfelt inscriptions. “To my little sweetheart for Christmas 1961” wrote my dear departed uncle in my treasury of nursery rhymes. I haven’t been anyone’s “little sweetheart” for such a long time and, as I leafed through this fragile old book, it was good to be reminded that I had been.
I took from the shelf a set of Queensland School Readers, reprints that I’d bought years ago. As some of you may know, the Readers were first used in schools in 1915 and, in various iterations, were used for the next 60 years.
At the beginning of the school year, pupils from Grade One to Grade Seven in my day were issued with a Reader. We all hoped to get a brand new one, but they were usually dog-eared from many years of use by pupils past.
The Readers were marvellously instructive little books that were, for many Queensland children, their first exposure to English literature; British, Australian and Queensland history; traditional fairy tales; and Greek and Roman mythology.
Leafing through the pages of one volume on this winter afternoon, I felt a tingle when I came across an old favourite, the “Story of Atalanta”; a blonde version of Wonder Woman, fleet of foot, incredibly athletic and, of course, beautiful. For a girl in the early 1960s, what was not to love about Atalanta?
She was an ace on the running track, such that no bloke could beat her. And this is where it gets interesting. She said, silly girl, that she’d only marry a man who could beat her in a race. Many tried but failed, with nasty consequences, until Hippomenes came along with a bag of golden apples, a gift from Aphrodite.
He threw the apples behind him as he ran and Atalanta could not help but stop and pick them up. It goes to show there really is more than one way to skin a cat.
The afternoon was wearing on, but at this point in the book culling exercise I was really starting to enjoy myself.
Taking another Queensland Reader off the shelf, I found “The Stone in the Road”, a morality tale that has stuck with me. A wise king wants to teach his people to be industrious and self-reliant, so one night he puts a large stone in the middle of the road in front of his palace.
In the morning, a farmer comes along, drives his wagon around the stone, and curses the useless people for leaving it there. Next is a self-important young soldier, who trips over the stone and storms off in anger. And so, the day passes, with every passer-by complaining about the stone but doing nothing about it. At nightfall, the miller’s daughter comes along and removes the stone from the road. As a reward for her diligence, finds a box of gold hidden underneath. The moral is that hard work is not necessarily its own reward.
By now kitchen duties were calling me. As I put the empty cardboard box back, I thought of my five-year old grandson who started school this year. Not for him the enduring pleasures of the Queensland Readers. They are so “last century”, it seems. No, he must have an iPad to do his reading homework.
But somehow, I can’t see him in 50 years’ time spending a leisurely hour or two browsing through his iPad collection.