Welcome to Freehand Books’ new column, “Biblieuphoria,” a semi-regular column all about books and the shelves that house them.
Each contribution will be from one of our authors. Read in delight as they reminisce about what books and bookshelves have meant to them and do mean to them.
Biblieuphoria: a portmanteau combining many words, among them biblio, euphoria, and the French lieu.
by Naomi K. Lewis, author of Tiny Lights for Travellers and one of Freehand’s talented editors.
Once, between the years of 1990 and 1996, I went five years without reading a book. That’s not quite accurate, since I did read at least some of the books assigned to me (I was in high school), but what I didn’t do was buy any books or ask for books as gifts or take books out of the library; I didn’t choose any novels or stories or essay collections – or even magazines – and then spend my free time devouring them. I often told my mother I spent afternoons and evenings at the library, but it was never true. I’ve learned since that teenagers are so neurologically and socially askew that they are basically psychotic (to simplify and exaggerate), and I keep revisiting adolescence in my own writing because the world looked so bizarre through my teenaged eyes, and felt so bizarre in my teenaged body, and became so dangerous in the face of my teenaged choices. The continuity of my self was interrupted, so that I was one person from the ages of barely conscious to fourteen, and then a different person for five years, and then back to the real me at nineteen (to simplify and exaggerate what a ‘self’ even is). And nothing speaks to this hiatus from myself more than the fact that I didn’t choose to read.
As a child, I didn’t want to go to sleep because it meant I had to stop reading, I didn’t want to go shopping because it meant I had to stop reading, and I didn’t want to travel by car because it meant that after a while, I would feel sick and have to stop reading. Parties were places that reading was considered weird, so you had to escape to the bathroom from time to time with your backpack, for a quick chapter. At school, I hid novels inside my math and spelling books, promising myself I’d stop after one more chapter. Just one more. And I read every book on my parents’ bookshelf, appropriate or not. My sister and I had our own bookshelf, too, and I read all the novels on that one so many times the pages fell out, especially Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, LM Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Neverending Story – and, well, the list is really never ending. I remember standing in front of the shelves and going into a kind of trance, trying to decide which volume to select. Which voyage to take. And birthdays and holidays, all my gifts were novels, each a whole new universe to be discovered.
At nineteen, I moved in with roommates, and I bought a bookshelf for my room. At a second-hand bookstore, I bought a novel. It was Anna Karenina, and it was the first novel I had ever bought; all the others had been gifts, or schoolbooks that I had to return, or library books. With that one novel, I began to build my own library, and in the next years, when I started university, I found that the thrill was back. Every new volume from the university bookstore was precious to me, and I couldn’t wait to dig in. I returned to my childhood habit of reading on the bus, reading in bed, and even reading while walking down the street. I don’t know how it is that I was never run over while I did this, but I certainly did forget to get off the bus, and ended up in parts of the city I’d never have seen otherwise. Standing in front of my own bookshelves, sitting amongst them, I felt both safe and exhilarated, though sometimes overwhelmed to the point of tears, at the thought of all the books I’d never have time to read, in the short span of my human life.
Now, I read and write novels for a living. In my free time, to relax, I read, mostly novels. When I’m walking, cooking dinner, or need to rest my screen-weary eyes, I listen to audiobooks, and most of them are novels. When people tell me they don’t read many books, especially novels, I wonder, but what do you do? How do you live? But, there were those five years when I didn’t read, either. What was I doing? How did I live? Truly, I shudder to remember, which is maybe why I keep writing about it. Franz Kafka wrote to his friend Max Brod that a “non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” Maybe the same is true of a non-reading reader, too.
by Barbara Joan Scott, author of The Taste of Hunger, a Quill and Quire Best Book of 2022.
When I was a kid of maybe six years old I had two ‘happy places’: the library across from the bowling alley in the basement of Chinook Mall, and the Hillhurst secondhand bookstore. Sadly, both are no more. They were technically places of abandonment since my parents left me there while they went shopping or about other business. But to me, a child never happier than when losing myself amongst and within books, these were places of wonder, and I never strayed. (My brother, of a different temperament entirely, they had to take with them.) I worked my way through all manner of books, some more age-appropriate than others. I’m sure librarians kept an eye on me and perhaps helped me make choices, but I don’t remember any people at all. I had eyes only for the rows upon rows of books. In the Hillhurst store there was a children’s section with a little stool on which I could sit and look up, up, up at all the tantalizing, tattered spines waiting for the day I’d be tall enough to reach them. I still love the smell of old books in a second hand store, the scent and texture of the well-loved and much-handled favourites in my own collection. When I attended university and first entered the eleven-story library, I had that same intoxicating feeling of too many books for one lifetime. I started skipping classes to spend hours in the carrels. I was home.
If the library of my childhood was where I learned the upside of abandonment, with its joys of being free from parental supervision, it was also where I first experienced a particular kind of betrayal. I have always read and re-read favourite books to the point where I have entire sections memorized. One of them was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I had taken a copy out of the library, not my usual one which had been checked out, and was horrified upon opening it to find that entire paragraphs had been removed from the first page. All the nuance, the lovingly written details of place and character, whole swaths of dialogue: gone. I was appalled. That was my first, and last, experience with an abridged book. I slammed it shut, vowing never to read another, and I never have. Even as a child, and especially now as a writer, I understood that authors put details in for a reason, and part of that reason is to delight the careful reader: details that may be missed on a first reading spring to life on a second or third. I refuse to let anyone decide which bits are essential and which are not. Flannery O’Connor, whose characters inhabit my head like old friends, once said, “You can’t pull meaning out of a story, like a string out of the top of a bag of chicken feed.” To me, this is the great sin that abridged books attempt. With writers I love, there are never enough words, I feel bereft when I turn the last page, which is why I know even as I close the book that I will one day have to go back and lose myself in it again.
by Keith Maillard, author of In the Defense of Liberty most recently, and, impressively, a dozen and a half other terrific titles. . .
If anybody’s life has been centered around books, mine has. As soon as I learned to read and discovered that a book can be an entry to another world, I was addicted. I’ve read thousands of books, owned thousands of books, and I’ve written a few myself. I began to learn the craft by writing three books that no one has ever published—and I fervently hope that no one ever will. Then I went on to write eighteen more that were published. Some of them did quite well. I cannot claim that this intensely book-centric life has been the healthiest or the most satisfying, but it’s been my life. I work at a university where I do my best to teach other people how to write. On my good days, I think I have the best possible job in the world. On my bad days, I tell my students, “If you can do anything else, do it.”
Let me take you back to when I was eleven. By then I had read every book that Leslie Charteris had written about Simon Templer, “the Saint.” It was the Saint’s “signature” that first caught my attention—the little stick figure with a halo above its head, a cursive statement of identity that’s one of the most brilliant branding devices ever employed by a writer of pop fiction. The Saint is a modern Robin Hood who’s constantly embroiled in wild adventures, matching wits with evil villains. He does have a saintly edge to him, is capable of doing magnificently good deeds from time to time—saving a prince from an anarchist’s bomb or the whole world from a mad scientist’s super-weapon—but his main occupation is stealing from the rich and then not so much giving to the poor as lining his own pockets. I read all of the Saint books as they were published, but the ones I loved the most were set in England between the wars—when Simon writes doggerel poetry, goes for swims in the Thames, keeps a keg of beer in his flat and drinks it from a tankard—when he still has comrades who share his adventures, and, in particular, when he’s still involved with the beautiful blonde Patricia Holm.
Simon Templer and Patricia Holm are far more than lovers; they’re natural friends, companions, pals. They share their lives, their adventures, their boundless good spirits, and their matchless courage. Patricia is not a passive heroine; she refuses to be left out of the action, drives the get-away car, knows how to tie up and gag a bad guy, packs a rod in her purse and doesn’t hesitate to use it. Of course Simon rescues her from deadly peril, but she sometimes rescues him.
To my surprise, after all these years I still find the Saint stories entertaining. Of course I see things now that I didn’t then—how thoroughly the writing is soaked in the ambience of England between the wars—but I can also feel again something of my child’s heart. Simon, driving his powerful sports car through the menacing, mysterious, evocative night, speeding to rescue his true love, hears the sound of her name in his tires on the road: Patricia Holm, Patricia Holm, Patricia Holm. Passages like that cut me to the heart, and I rode around on my bike intoning: Patricia Holm, Patricia Holm, Patricia Holm. I loved her as much as Simon did.
Patricia first appears in Meet—the Tiger! from 1929. Chateris repudiated that book, said it wasn’t really the first Saint story, but I didn’t care what Chateris said. He was only the author—what did he know? I wanted to see what Simon and Patricia had to say for themselves, so I asked the librarian at the Ohio County Public Library (the center of my universe) how I could get an out-of-print book. No, I said, I didn’t want to borrow it through interlibrary loan; I want to own it. She gave me address of a shop in New York City. Using a fountain pen on my mother’s stationary, employing my best Palmer Method, I wrote to inquire if they might have Meet—the Tiger! I received an amazingly speedy response—less than two weeks—saying that it was a rare book. They didn’t have it in stock at the moment, but they would look out for it on my behalf. Then, a month or so later, I received a second note. They said they’d found a copy in excellent condition, and if I sent them a money order for six bucks, they’d be delighted to send it to me. “Six dollars?” my mother said. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Remember, we’re back in the day of the nickel Coke and the twenty-five-cent hamburger—that’s a good-sized patty with lettuce and tomato. We were not well-off. I never had the sense that I lacked for anything, but sometimes, as we were approaching my mother’s payday, our dinners became kind of sketchy. Six bucks then translates into roughly sixty-eight bucks now. I can’t remember what I said to convince her, but my mother came up with the money. “That better be one hell of a book,” she said. It was.
For me, the adult reader, it’s the most fun of the Saint books because Chateris was only twenty when he wrote it, and he hadn’t got his act together yet. As a child, I didn’t notice how often the story is a flaming satire on the crime genre, and I had no trouble believing in the wacky, utterly absurd plot. I loved seeing Simon’s morning routine spelled out for the first time. He skips for fifteen minutes, shadow boxes for five, sprints to the edge of a cliff, climbs across a death-defying rock face, dives a hundred and fifty feet into the ocean, swims a quarter mile at racing speed, sprints the last hundred yards back to shore—and after that, takes breakfast. But much more important to me was the first appearance of the wonderful, glorious, perfect girl, Patricia Holm.
When they meet, Simon is twenty-seven and Patricia is twenty. She’s an orphan, living with her aunt in a quiet little town on the North Devon coast. She was educated at a posh girls’ school and has always lived a quiet country life, but when the action starts, she tells Simon that she won’t be “packed up in cotton wool.” If she should be captured, she says, she’ll have a gun “and save one cartridge.” By the last act, she’s carrying not one gun but two. When the Saint drops out of the action—he literally falls down a well—Patricia takes over not only the adventure but the whole second half of the book. She commands a small band of good guys, works out a daring plan of attack, swims across miles of ocean in her skin-tight Jantzen, knocks out a villain, and, when captured, defies the bad guys to do their worst. She has become “a remorseless fighting machine.” It goes without saying that she’s a gorgeous girl—a veritable stunner—with her golden hair, athletic figure, and chilly blue eyes similar to the Saint’s own.
In the later books, Patricia is transformed from being a “slip of a girl” who barely reaches Simon’s shoulder to “a tall slender girl,” and then, eventually, into the long-legged, cold and deadly Golden Girl who has, by now, become a stock-in-trade for thriller writers. As Chateris becomes increasingly besotted with his male protagonist, Patricia turns into shiny blonde window dressing, and, by the 1940s, vanishes altogether from the series, leaving the Saint free to get himself involved with whatever exotic lady might turn up. As a child, I didn’t notice how the characterizations changed and evolved, but I did know what I liked—those early classic stories set between the wars—and they’re the ones I read over and over until I absorbed them deep into myself.
At thirteen I decided to write my own crime novel. I still have that attempt. What intrigues me now is that there is no sign of rewriting—no second drafts, no erasure marks, nothing crossed out. I wrote exactly the way I read, thinking not in single words but in long gulps of language, and I must have internalized the stylistic demands of the crime fiction genre so thoroughly that the story flowed out of me, one stock phrase after another, as easily as squeezing toothpaste out of a tube. I was in too much of a hurry to sweat the small stuff—like spelling.
A man had fallen forward from the elevator and lay face down on the floor. The enterior of the elevator was slimy with blood. Blood, also, drenched the man’s coat.
A lesser girl might have screamed, or even fainted, but they certainly would not do what Kathy did.
She walked over to the prostrate man. She was momentairily nausiated but took a deep breth and bent over to examine him. Their was no need to feel the paulse, two round holes adorned his chest. She felt his skin—still warm. His leg twitched once. She stood up as if electrified. He had been shot with in, at least, five minutes. The killer was, in all probability, still in the building.
My protagonist, Kathy Brand, is modeled quite consciously on Patricia Holm; like Patricia, she carries a revolver in her purse. She has jade-green eyes and “titan” tresses—my attempt at “titian.” She’s a criminal lawyer who is partnered with a private investigator. She’s sarcastic, hot-tempered, impulsive, and courageous. He’s the thinker, the one who stays behind in their office murmuring, “Let’s figure things out calmly,” while she’s out in the world risking her neck.
I had recently seen Rear Window—had sat in the darkened theater, just as thrilled as I was supposed to be, while my obsessions and anxieties interacted with the obsessions and anxieties of that horny boy who’d grown up to be Alfred Hitchcock. Reversing 1950s gender norms, Jimmy Stewart, with his broken leg, is the passive thinker while Grace Kelly is the active adventurer—an arrangement that must have appealed to me. That being the height of the ‘50s, Grace Kelly climbs a fire escape in her stiletto heels, but Kathy Brand, my active protagonist, has the sense to kick off hers when she’s forced to chase bad guys down long ominous hallways.
In forty-two pages, I establish a murder plot so complicated I can’t imagine how I would have solved it—which may well be why I never did solve it. The cops worry about fingerprints, powder burns, gun calibers, and muzzle velocities—stuff that I must have picked up from the Saint books or from the other crime fiction I was reading—but some nice touches amaze me now. I have no way of knowing if I made them up or stole them. When arrested on suspicion of murder, Kathy yells, “Book me or release me. I demand the right of counsel.”
The weary, gloomy cop—based on Inspector Teal from the Saint series—says, “You are counsel.”
How much of our lives is based on the crazy books we read as kids? I don’t know—a lot, maybe. I grew up thinking that Simon Templer and Patricia Holm had the perfect relationship—one of equality—and that’s what I wanted too.
A few years ago my wife and I did the Big Downsize—that dreadful thing most of us do as we’re getting older. She’d always been an avid reader, like me, and in her youth, she’d been the TA for an English course that the students called “From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf,” so she owned a lot of books. Between us, we owned thousands of books—and as we moved, most of them vanished. We sold some of them but gave most of them away. We, of course, saved a few. “You don’t want to keep those old Saint books, do you?” she asked me, and I stared down at them lying in a carton.
“Yes,” I said, “Yes, I think I do.”