Everything only connected by “and” and “and.”
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edges
of the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)
Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seen
this old Nativity while we were at it?
–the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,
an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,
colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,
and, lulled within, a family of pets,
–and looked and looked our infant sight away.
Elizabeth Bishop “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”
The advent of electronic texts and the many prophecies foretelling the “death of the book,” or even of stable printed text altogether, has precipitated much reflection on the nature of the reading experience itself. The deeply meditative childhood reading Elizabeth Bishop evokes in “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” now assumes a historical distance. No wonder that a cluster of contemporary authors have been exploring the distant terrain of past reading experience. John Sutherland’s The Boy Who Loved Books and Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built consider how childhood reading shaped them. Others, with a lifetime spent in the book world, reflect on the elusive and ever-shifting nature of the reading experience. Wendy Lesser, Patricia Meyer Spacks, Jonathan Yardley, Anne Fadiman and Susan Hill are among the host of writers who have set themselves the task of re-reading and reassessing books they read in early life. No surprise then that, for all of them, the book re-read in mature adulthood is almost always profoundly changed, sometimes nearly beyond recognition.
The reader who returns to a much-read childhood text as an adult does so not only as a different reader, but also as a different person. The adult reading of the same book is less a re-reading than an entirely fresh enterprise, though one that is strangely haunted by shadowy presences of former perceptions. The gulf between the two experiences precipitates speculation, not only about the nature of reading, but also about memory and the self. Proust’s meditation on childhood reading in Swann’s Way leads almost immediately into a wider meditation on the perception of time and the way in which the child’s absorption in the book compresses hours into minutes, “as each hour struck, it would seem to me that a few moments only had passed since the hour before.” The “catatonic” reading of the childhood self that Francis Spufford recalls in The Child that Books Built becomes the key to the construction of a psyche capable of withstanding the distress of inhabiting a family condemned, through his sister’s medical condition, to live “at the frontiers of medical knowledge.” More commonly, childhood reading is recalled as a lost golden age of infinite leisure punctuated by marvelous discoveries as it is in Adele Wiseman’s essay “Memoirs of a Book Molesting Childhood.”
What so many of these differing accounts have in common is the sharp recall of the materiality of the book itself, the smell of the pages, the feel of the bindings, the page with the terrifying illustration. L.P. Hartley’s frequently quoted opening sentence in The Go-Between that, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” is supremely apposite to the phenomenology of reading. Few adult readers engage in the intense attachment to a single book that is the familiar condition of the child reader–the same book borrowed on multiple occasions from the library or the owned copy close to disintegration from repeated readings. Those repeated readings only separated by the briefest intervals of time. For a few, the early pattern of compulsive re-reading persists into adult life. William Maxwell, New Yorker fiction editor for forty years, recalled reading Treasure Island
as his first work of “serious literature” as a college freshman, “I reached the final sentence of the book and turned back to the beginning and went on reading. I read Treasure Island five times without stopping before I turned to anything else.” For Maxwell, the habit of repeated re-reading became an important part of his repertoire of editorial skills. But, for most readers, returning to the same text over and over again is a childhood reading practice long left behind.
For most adult readers the remembered experience of such fixated reading seems entirely mysterious, especially because the chosen book in receipt of such devotion so frequently seems quite undistinguished or even boring. What could possibly have so enthralled me about Drummer Boy of Burma to the extent that my nine year old self borrowed it from the public library on dozens of successive occasions? Nothing about the boy’s drumming is now retained in my mind, but I can recall in minute detail a couple of incidents from the story. In one, Tommy, the main character, is sitting on the verandah having a discussion with his friend, a girl of the same age, about the religious beliefs of the Burmese. The topic of Jainism comes up and his friend announces, “I think it’s a lovely idea not to kill anything” as she slaps a fat mosquito on her arm. That this incident would lodge so firmly in memory suggests that the nine year old reader spent a good deal of time mulling it over. Possibly the magnet was the germ of a philosophical discussion, but the fixative, I believe, was probably that it was my first encounter with deliberate irony. I may even have had the vague feeling that the writer was scoring a cheap victory on behalf of his main character’s dismissal of the Jains as hopelessly impractical.
The only other incident from the book which embedded itself equally firmly comes from a later stage in the story when the main character is on a ship bound for America and he encounters an Arab peddler who comes on board at Suez where the ship is temporarily docked. The peddler has apples for sale among “the gew-gaws . . . spread for sale,” and, having heard much from his parents about this lovely fruit, Tommy buys the wizened specimen on offer, but then promptly spits out the first dry and disappointing mouthful. A long-anticipated treat ending in disappointment is such a familiar childhood experience that, even without the archetypal resonance of the apple motif, that its fusing into memory is no great wonder.
But the intense allure of Drummer Boy of Burma to a nine or ten year old girl still seems entirely mysterious. It may be that part of the attraction lay in its American characters, since, in post-war Britain, all things American carried powerful associations of pleasure, plenty, and limitless possibilities. Perhaps too, the geographical locale was sufficiently close to the territory of Kipling’s Jungle Books that the book contributed to an imagined meta-universe comprised of materials from both texts.
Like Francis Spufford, in his attempt to recover his childhood mental state by returning to the books that shaped it, I wanted to see what alignments I could discover between my recollections of the book I had read more than five decades earlier and what I might make of it now. Luckily, I had remembered the title accurately and could use the on-line British Library catalogue to identify the publication details and further on-line sources to locate a copy for sale. Already, my relationship to the text had shifted far away from the child-reader carrying home the trophy library book. For the first time, the identity of the author figured in my consciousness, and a new context began to form around the book. William Oliver Stevens, I soon discovered, spent the majority of his life as a military historian, was the son of missionaries to Burma, and wrote Drummer Boy, his only children’s book, as a fictional memoir only a few years before his death. Even before I had ordered the book, its political and historical context began to loom into view and shape how I would re-read it. For a child reader, contextualization of this kind in relation to a favorite book is entirely absent. Instead, the book has the status of a unique phenomenon unless it can be grouped with others as nearly identical as possible. Even rather bookish children are apt to be indifferent to the author’s identity unless it opens a trail to books similar to the current favorite. They are unafflicted by the speculations about the writer which often dominate the adult reader’s apprehension of the text. “Why does the writing make us chase the writer?” asks Julian Barnes’ narrator in Flaubert’s Parrot, “Why can’t we leave well alone? Why aren’t the books enough?”
When the copy of Drummer Boy of Burma arrived from the book dealer the first shock of non-recognition occurred before I had even torn open the brown paper packaging. The book seemed feather-light, not in the least the substantial weight my hands thought they remembered. Smaller too, once I took it from its wrapping, although the typeface seemed startlingly large. The dust-jacket was, of course, unfamiliar since my repeated childhood readings had been from a public library copy stripped of its dust-jacket. But the dark red boards under the dust-jacket with the silver outline of a drum were familiar–but oddly pristine compared with my recollection of the somewhat battered library copy.
I had not reflected on the multiplicity of ways in which my entire encounter with the book would have altered. Instead of being the prized volume retrieved from the library for the twentieth time and figuring as the sole focus of my attention, it was now one book among many competing for my attention. While I had not entirely lost my capacity to be “lost in a book,” it was no longer possible to be lost in this book. Another reader, a second self, shaped by decades of reading and accustomed to critical analysis, was gazing over my shoulder, observing and assessing my reading. Moreover, even the physical postures of the encounter had utterly changed. The adult body no longer accommodates the near-foetal curled reading position enclosed by an armchair favoured by the child-reader. Nor does reading in a shared adult bed remotely resemble the hermetically-sealed bedtime reading of the child reading under the covers with a flashlight.
My re-reading of Drummer Boy offered only a few clues about why it had once been so addictive. I had remembered neither the name or almost anything about the book’s protagonist, Tommy Haven, and the most dramatic events of the story seemed only very mistily familiar. Occasionally I encountered tiny shards which suddenly slid into place as the original sources of fragmentary items of inconsequential information–so this was where I had learned what Dundreary whiskers were, and here was a Glengarry cap. Alarmingly too, here was an implicitly racist description of the cultural phenomenon of “losing face” which I suddenly realized had rested intact and undisturbed in my consciousness. The sense of shock was something like that described by a colleague who came upon a book on religion in the Golden Book series she had read in childhood and discovered that it formed the essential source of a set of theological notions which had persisted virtually unchallenged in her adult mind. Most of the fragments from Drummer Boy that corresponded to memory were more neutral in character. The intense heat of the Burmese climate contrasting with Tommy’s parents’ stories of snow in their native New England had clearly made an impression, perhaps because both climatic extremes were equally unfamiliar to a child growing up in a climate were winters rarely brought snow and whose summer temperatures rarely reached higher than the low 70s. Here too, in the opening chapter, “Christmas at Ninety in the Shade,” where Tommy’s mother is reading aloud to him, was the explanation of why my memory contained the first lines of Whittier’s poem “Snowbound,
“The sun, that brief December day,
Rose cheerless over hills of grey.”
without ever having read the poem itself.
The two incidents noted earlier had been recalled with surprising accuracy. The children’s argument on the verandah about the ethics of killing appeared in the text almost exactly as I had remembered it:
“The children often fell into deep arguments when they found it too hot to play games and grew tired of making up stories. Like most deep talk, it never got anywhere but it killed time. Tommy thought he had finished off the Buddhist idea of not taking life when he mentioned cobras and tigers, but Phyllis was never convinced by arguments.
‘I don’t care,’ was her answer. ‘It’s a lovely idea not to kill anything.’ As she spoke, she squashed a fat mosquito on her arm with a smart slap.”
The elements from this that I had recalled precisely, after the passage of over five decades, and before looking again at the book, were the physical location of the argument—the verandah—a word that still seems freighted with a sense of the exotic and which must have seemed even more so to a child who had yet to see a house with a verandah. Interestingly too, I had accurately remembered Phyllis’s exact words as well as the “fat mosquito” fated to be sacrificed in order for the author and Tommy to score their debating point with the reader. Not surprisingly, the generalizing nod about the inutility of “deep talk” had failed to stick in my memory. I had also not remembered that a third person, Tommy’s Burmese friend, Hla Boo, is also an active participant in the argument. I had also affixed to this incident the refinement of Jainism rather than the generic Buddhism of the original. Presumably this strayed in from later learning, at attached itself to my recollection of that part of the text. The second incident, involving Tommy’s disappointing first encounter with an apple, also proved to have lodged in my mind more or less intact, though it had become detached from its precise geographical location in the port of Suez. Re-reading the book also revealed that a good many of the minutiae that struck me as especially familiar involved food—the different sequence of meals compelled by a hot climate and the fascinating detail of butter being a liquid poured from a can rather than sliced from a cool slab. No doubt the child reader’s usual fascination with food was intensified by the monotony of 1950s British food and the limitations of post-war rationing.
While I had remembered the general narrative direction of the book—Tommy’s family’s transition from Burma to New England, I had entirely forgotten, or perhaps never quite registered, that the move is prompted by the rise of Burmese nationalism, involving attacks on the British occupying force. These events form the basis for most of the book’s dramatic action, so it seems surprising that they would so readily evaporate from memory. One reason could be that the restlessness of “natives” was such a familiar feature of my reading at the time—R.M.Ballantyne, Kipling, histories of England like the Imperialist
Our Island Story—that the flight of the Haven family from the threat of the Burmese “dacoits” seemed a routine and unremarkable plot device. So effective was H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story in promoting monarchism and imperialism to generations of British children throughout the twentieth century, that the right-wing think tank Civitas funded a new edition in to be distributed thoughout the UK school system.
Several of Drummer Boy of Burma‘s illustrations, though I had not previously consciously recalled them, seemed startlingly familiar–a reminder of the way in which the immersed child reader is meditatively absorbed in a picture accompanying a story. In this meditative state, the picture is no mere “illustration” to the text of the story but has an independent existence of its own. Thus a picture showing a tense moment in the narrative can hold its terror long after the reader knows that the incident had a happy resolution. My child-reader self would quickly turn the page of the Longman’s Christmas Annual to avoid seeing the drawing of the threatening-looking tramp lurking behind the wood-pile, long after frequent re-readings of the story revealed the “tramp’s” identity as the heroine’s husband safely returning from the American Civil War. Similarly, both terrifying and compelling was the colour illustration of Sindbad burdened with the leech-like Old Man of the Sea in the large-format children’s edition of The Arabian Nights.
This picture of Sindbad with his dreadful burden was mentally fused with that of Christian with his burden of sins in the illustrated edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress which I read repeatedly at the same age. No wonder then that these images seem to flicker in background of my adult reading of Bunyan or the Thousand and One Nights despite their pages being devoid of illustration. The intensity of the child-reader’s gaze on book illustrations which so irreversibly fixes them in memory seems to be a state of mind entirely out of the adult reader’s range of experience. By adulthood we have forgotten how pictures once served as the firm islands in a sea of text, how uninviting and unknowable page after page of unbroken print then seemed. Recalling that mental state involves a vertiginous leap into an utterly different consciousness. Small wonder that, in both of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems that evoke childhood reading, “In the Waiting Room” and “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” it is the illustrations rather than the words of the text that have become fixed in her memory for decades.