Many, many years ago, in another life, an old friend came to visit me in Anchorage, Alaska. We spent a week or so travelling around, me showing him my world while catching up on what was going on in his. He left one day while I was at work. When I came home, there was a box on my kitchen table with a note thanking me for my hospitality.
I opened it, not quite sure what to expect. I’d not had a present from him since he’d chipped in to buy me a framed poster of James Dean’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams for my 21st. [I still have that, on the top of a wardrobe at home, one of the many things I’m sure my mother wishes I’d take with me next time I’m back.] I read the note in which he told me that he wanted introduce me to ten old friends, friends he thought I would enjoy. I opened to box to find ten books by authors I’d never read. Some, like Edith Wharton and Anais Nin, I’d heard of. Others were complete strangers – names I can’t even remember now. I read them all and from memory, enjoyed most of them.
I’ve done the same a few times – sent ten of my favourite books to avid readers who have opened their homes to me – it’s a lovely present both to give and to receive.
A quick search of the almighty Google shows that there are about 5.8 million published authors in the world (this includes those that are self-published, about two-thirds). Enough said. There’s way too many to be current on all of them. And while it’s relatively easy to familiarise yourself with those publishing today, the gems from yesteryear worth searching for.
Last year, I met Penelope Fitzgerald. When, in 1938, she graduated with a First from Oxford, she said that she’d been reading steadily for 17 years and now it was time to start writing. But it wasn’t until her twelfth (and final) book that she achieved fame in America – she was 78. The Blue Flower was the ‘most admired novel of 1995′ featuring as it did on 19 lists of Best Book of the Year and winning America’s Book Critics’ Gold Circle award. Four of her books were shortlisted for the Booker Prize; one – Offshore – won it. I met her through the good auspices and fine taste of the lovely MC. I started with the shortlisted The Bookshop and read it with delight. Everything in it – every character, every happening, every observation, does something. Its covers are quite close together so it’s readable in single afternoon/evening and once you start, you’re pulled into a world you don’t want to leave.
I followed this with the prize-winning Offshore and again was struck by the simplicity of it all.
Everything that you learn is useful, says the 11-year-old Martha in Offshore. Didn’t you know that everything you learn, and everything you suffer, will come in useful at some point in your life?
And, having reminded myself of her genius, I’ve interrupted this blog to order Innocence and At Freddie’s.
Fitzgerald was first published at the age of 59. I read that little morsel with the same hope-inducing satisfaction I feel when I hear of someone older than I am marrying for the first time. She was a some woman.
If you’ve not already met, an introduction is in order.