When I was eleven or twelve my English teacher read aloud to the class the passage from T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone in which the young Wart first encounters Merlin. Already attuned to all things Arthurian from an earlier fixation on Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, I knew enough to be completely charmed by White’s play with anachronisms. I longed to read the book in its entirety. But where to find it? No copy in the rather dismal school library. No copy, or any hope of one, in the town public library. The local W.H.Smith’s was already well on its way to becoming a stationery store rather than a bookshop.
I resigned myself to a long wait and eventually read the longed-for book many years later as an adult. Similar long waits applied to books I’d heard dramatized on the BBC’s Children’s Hour. So I read books like Phillipa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and White’s The Sword in the Stone in adulthood with a strange kind of double consciousness—part experienced adult reader and part naïve enthusiast.
The wistful frustration of those long waits for a much-desired book was shared by many young readers in the pre-digital age. Tom Stoppard remembers his yearning for more books by Arthur Ransome after reading Peter Duck and noticing the list of other books by Ransome on the flyleaf –“ . . . my method of searching for these books had a sort of dim pathos about it; I simply went about picking up any book I saw lying about to see if it was called Swallows and Amazons. But it never was.”
In the digital age when hundreds of thousands of texts can be summoned on-line in seconds Stoppard’s melancholy search is an almost unknown phenomenon. But so is the way that the long-yearned-for book, once read, becomes fixed in the memory as a kind of lexical trophy.