Sunday, February 09, 2014

What we're reading: Old books

Sometimes, nostalgia has to give way to practicality in libraries. We librarians face that necessity regularly while doing one of our duties called "weeding." There is a finite amount of space on our library shelves, so periodically we check our books to see how many times they have circulated in the past few years (or, in some cases, decades!). This is a fairly reliable way to find out what our "demographic," which is to say you, our regular patrons, like and want to read, and what you don't. If you have given ample evidence that you don't, by your failure to check out a book, we remove it from our inventory to make way for something more desirable.

This is a hard job, however, if you, like me, have been a lifelong reader and still harbor fondness or even love for books that have disappeared from public consciousness, fallen from favor, become a little old-fashioned or quaint. When talk around the reference room turns to the fact that our shelves are too full to house all our books and we start on another bout of checking what can go in order to make room for the new, my thoughts inevitably turn to a few authors I discovered when young.

Elizabeth Goudge, in 1934
One of those is Elizabeth Goudge. Goudge was born in 1900, and was a best-selling author from the 1930s to the 1970s, but now her books collect more dust than accolades. So this weekend I took home a book of hers that I had somehow missed but which still resides on our library's shelves, to read it before it disappears. It was probably easy to miss this one, since other libraries have been far more ruthless than ours in their elimination of the sweet and spirituality-infused works of this author. I know this because the volumes of hers that I own, I mostly owe to discovering at a Friends of the Library book sale at "another Los Angeles library" more than 25 years ago, when they had been weeded from those shelves.

Interestingly, when I decided to do this blog post about Goudge and looked her up on the internet for background material, I discovered something about The Rosemary Tree, my weekend reading, that I didn't know: In 1993, an Indian author, Indrani Aikath Gyaltsen, took this book, written by Goudge in 1956, recast the setting from an English to an Indian village, changed the names and switched the religion from Christianity to Hinduism, but kept the story almost word for word the same in many parts, and published it as Crane's Morning, her second novel. When this plagiarism was discovered, the author committed suicide. A sad ending; but her choice was a testament to the worth of Goudge's writing, reviewers calling the altered work "magic" and "full of humor and insight."

Goudge near the end of her life
While I enjoyed reading it, I must confess this was not my favorite. Goudge's writing is notably Christian and also somewhat mystical in outlook, and this one in particular is focused on those themes which appeal to me less now than they did in my more inward-looking youth. "A deep well of quiet reflection and spiritual satisfaction" is the way one reviewer describes her books. But the thing I particularly like about her books is that she matter-of-factly allows legend, myth and fairy tale into daily life, and also that she has a deep love of her home country, England, that shines through in loving descriptions of all things English, from the countryside to the gardens, birds, buildings, people, and even the food they eat. In fact, one latterly famous writer--J. K. Rowling--says that Goudge's book The Little White Horse (for which Goudge won the Carnegie medal in 1946) was her favorite childhood book, and one of the few that had a direct influence on the Harry Potter novels: "The author always included details of what her characters were eating and I remember liking that. You may have noticed that I always list the food being eaten at Hogwarts."

My favorite books of hers are, in order, Green Dolphin Street, The Scent of Water, and The Blue Hills. The first is well known enough to have been made into a movie (starring Richard Hart, Donna Reed and Lana Turner) in 1944, but the other two are obscure, even within Goudge's bibliography--in fact, The Blue Hills escaped mention entirely, making me wonder if it was released under a different name in the U.K. I like the latter two for their simplicity, and also for her treatment of children and animals, for whom she had both an affinity and a talent for describing and revealing on their own terms.

Green Dolphin Street is a wonderful tale of two sisters and the man they both love, and it travels from the island of Guernsey to the island of New Zealand, from windy beaches to austere convents to primeval forests, as it follows its characters from the beginning to almost the end of their lives. I have read it half a dozen times over the past 25 years, and it never disappoints.

Perhaps you, too, would like to become better acquainted with Elizabeth Goudge, before she gives way to the next up-and-coming author?

Something else I would like to note: Attention should also be paid to the delightful cover art that graces many of these older books. Here is a partial scan of the cover for The Rosemary Tree; I looked in vain inside for any acknowledgment whatsoever of its artist, but up in the top corner of the drawing on the back of the book, I discovered his signature, Walter Hodges. What a charming ink and watercolor rendering he made to showcase Ms. Goudge's words! (Click on the image for a larger view.)

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