The day of the book

Image by Andrea Petrlik-Husienovic, Kasmir Publishing, UNESCO World Book Day

Image by Andrea Petrlik-Husienovic, Kasmir Publishing, UNESCO World Book Day

I am an unashamed bibliophile, of Catalan and Irish heritage, so World Book Day, 23 April, is a day to celebrate. First identified as a date of literary importance in Catalonia in 1923, it has now become a worldwide marker of the contribution of books to our existence. UNESCO World Book Day upholds the right of everyone to have access to knowledge and it acknowledges creativity and diversity through the existence of books.

It is the date of death for Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, and the feast day for Catalonia’s patron saint, St. George/Jordi (dating back to 1436). Across much of Spain today a book and rose will be presented to lovers and friends. And, throughout the world, bookstores, libraries and other organisations will make ‘the book’ their focus for activities.

Adding to the articles I write on LinkedIn and my blog, marydsnordiccrime, I have decided to add a book blog – booksbyDalmau – to my website, and what better way to start this than to mark World Book Day 2018 by revisiting some of my favourite books. In each instance, memories of when I read them for the first time, what they meant to me, and what I learned from them come to the fore.

This is the currency of literature – to engage, delight, educate, inform, reinforce. And, to create worlds and characters who resonate and influence our thinking. The greatest literature reflects our world, opens us up to new ideas, and allows us to simply enjoy life. These little vignettes from my reading life might just remind you of the books in your life and give you pause to think of the riches afforded us by reading on this World Book Day.

“Holidays at Last! said Peter, coming in at the back door, and flinging his school satchel right across the kitchen.” The Secret Seven series from Enid Blyton were my go-to books, along with Famous Five and others, when my school holidays started. Who has not felt that joy at weeks stretching ahead with a reading list prepared and ready?

It would be my fortieth birthday before I would set foot on Irish soil but I had been imagining and reading Ireland for years before that; indeed, it seemed unbelievable to be standing in the village on the other side of the world with my relatives’ names boldly adorning virtually every store in the square. “When I was growing up in the 1960s, the colour of my world could have been described as drab grey. A revolution might have taken place among the young of London and New York, but it was far removed from the wilds of Mayo. The only illumination in my grey world came from books, music and Fr. John, my English teacher…..” This is the opening from Vincent McDonnell’s piece “Impressions of Colour” in Sunday Miscellany, a selection from Irish writers drawn together by Marie Heaney.

Irish writer Colm Toibin, for whom I have hosted events in Melbourne, wrote a book called The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe. I vividly remember being enthralled by both the diversity of customs Toibin chronicled and the people he met who practice their religion so uniquely: “He was the first Catholic clergyman I had met who had no power. I wondered if that was why he smiled so much, or seemed so bemused and easy-going.” The Irish are famously wonderful writers and it is a particular thrill to add to my ever-growing collection of books by Irish authors and books on Ireland.

Books give us a sense of our place in the world as well as identify what it is that links us to our physical environment. I always cite Listening to Country by Ros Moriarty as one of my top five books because it resonates with me so much about my sense of family: “Belonging – narnu-yuwa: I belong to a place in the mind of my ancestors. My life fulfills the imagination of the generations who came before me, and whose spirit I carry forward. They prepared a special place for me, through their hope, dreams and love.”  It is remarkable to feel a connection through Ros’ writing with the philosophies of her husband’s Aboriginal family.

Equally, books transport us to places completely unknown to us and illuminate the world as inhabited by people far distant from our existence. The story, as told by Roger Hutchinson, of a man on the Hebridean island of Raasay who built a road – Calum’s Road – could not be further from my daily life. Yet, this remarkable man and the story of his life is nothing short of captivating and uplifting. It is the simplicity of his life that is so entrancing: “Calum MacLeod – man, road-builder and writer – could be described as quintessentially Gaelic, the flag-bearer of past generations, not folding to bureaucracy but building a road with heroic determination in spite of what the critics said, in spite of the bureaucrats…he is a man who writes passionately of his own people, seeing each individual in his own right. Because of his own extraordinary achievements he has won the distinction of becoming a hero in his own lifetime.” (Campbell Sandilands quoted by Roger Hutchinson).

To immerse yourself in a novel is to suspend worry and activity and to allow yourself to travel into the world the writer has created:

“Even in high summer, Tintagel was a haunted place; Igraine, Lady of Duke Gorlois, looked out over the sea from the headland.” The Mists of Avalon, Marion Bradley

“So now get up. Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.” Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

“I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of the forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light.” Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks

“Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson was inside the small farmstead adjoined to the church of Breidabolstadur, repairing the hearth with new stones, when he heard his father clear his throat in the doorway.” Burial Rites, Hannah Kent.

And, then there is Shakespeare:

“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage,
Which, but their children's end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.” (Romeo and Juliet)

And Cervantes:

“In a place in La Mancha, the name of which I don't want to recall, there lived, not long ago, one of those gentlemen with a lance on the rack, an old shield, a worn-out horse, and a racing greyhound." (Don Quixote)

This World Book Day, remember the great authors and books that hold meaning for you.


Andrew Dalmau