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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Old Books, Old Friends


For some reason, I've been drawn toward comforting things over the last couple of weeks.  Perhaps it's a need to feel the ties to a pleasant past as life itself moves quickly along.  Don't be mistaken, I have high hopes for an even better future, but there is nothing like revisiting some of our former haunts.

Books, in my opinion, are among the best and most reliable old friends.  A good book is like a touchstone.  By merely opening the cover and seeing the familiar words, feeling the pages beneath the fingertips and, especially in the case of truly old books, inhaling the musty smell of the aged paper, one can be instantly transported to another state of mind.

I have stacks and stacks of unread books in all sorts of places - on the dresser that serves as my bedside table, in my closets, under my bed.  Any free space is a potential site for a new stack of books!  It seems that I am always on the hunt for something new to read, the topic depending on my interest of the hour.   Still, when it comes down to the need to read, I'm just as likely to reach for a well-thumbed tome as I am to land on something new and exciting.  The best thing about those books that we've read and loved is that we know that we are going to like them.  We can be certain that we'll be immersed in the story once again.  No disappointment at the inability to get past the first chapter, or to feel obligated to slog through pages that just don't quite catch our interest.  So, what are my favorite reads at times like this?  The list is rather long!

First, Miss Read books are reliable in all seasons.  Her wonderful stories of life in the Cotswolds cover every season of the year and every season of life.  They are warm, welcoming and cozy without being sweet or cloying.

I can also return again and again to a perennial favorite, "Upstairs at the White House" by J.B. West.  West was an usher and, later, chief usher (rather like the general manager) of the White House starting in the Roosevelt administration.  In this memoir we are introduced to no-nonsense Bess Truman, imperious but jolly Mamie Eisenhower, a mischievous Jacqueline Kennedy and Chairman of the Board, Lady Bird Johnson.  Combining thoughtful insights and a great deal of humor, J.B. West manages to tell a great deal without ever compromising his subject's privacy.  A charming peek into life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

My love of presidential history weighs heavy on my list of favorite reads.  Carl Anthony's two-volume work on America's first ladies keeps me interested time and again.  Fascinating and authoritatively written, "First Ladies" is packed with fascinating information on the wives of the presidents from Martha Washington through Barbara Bush.  I'd give a lot to see this series updated to include the more recent first ladies.  Interestingly, Anthony was able to get Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to read and annotate the chapters dealing with her tenure in the executive mansion, allowing these passages to be particularly powerful.

"The Queen" by Anne Morrow is long out of date, having been written in the 1980's.  However, it is one of the best and most enjoyable books on the subject.  It's filled with marvelous anecdotes about one of the most famous and most private women in the world.  We learn the Queen's likes and dislikes, experience her delightful sense of humor and understand better her dedication to duty.  It also offers a real sense of what life is like for Elizabeth II.

Finally, "Cannery Row" and "Sweet Thursday" by John Steinbeck transport me instantly and happily to one of my favorite of all places, California.  It was "Cannery Row" that first incited my interest in the state and I come back to the characters of the Palace flophouse, Western Biological and Wing Chung's market frequently.  "The Pastures of Heaven" and "The Long Valley" are also perfect for an escape from the day to day with their richly evocative language. I know precisely how these stories will make me feel and, at times, I long to hear and read Steinbeck's carefully crafted sentences.

My list goes on - "The Railway Children", "A Passage to India", "A Room With a View", the Rumpole series, "Death of a President" - and I'm sure yours does to.  Happily, books are within easy reach of most of us.  They are among my most treasured possessions.

If I could give just one thing to my own children, it would probably be a love of reading.  Through books one can go anywhere, learn anything and feel almost everything.  Reading, for me, is one of the greatest pleasures in life!

What are YOUR favorite, often-read books?

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