Books and Memory

travels with my Aunt

Traveling home to visit family over the holidays this year, two different people commented on the book I carried with me, Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene. Both mentioned that the title “was an older one,” a fact I hadn’t given any thought when I chose it, having simply gotten my hands on a copy after a friend’s recommendation. Looking at it now, I notice the book is a first edition (though not a monetarily valuable one), printed in 1969 and, according to a bookplate in the front cover, presented as a gift to a student of one of Wellington’s local Girls’ schools in 1971. Because the copy isn’t in terribly good condition, I haven’t been shy of adding more dog-ears to the pages, or of underlining passages that resonate. The book has that wonderful worn hardcover quality of almost always staying open to the page you’ve turned to, even when left unattended.

In the holiday season, there’s something particularly appealing about reading a book whose physical copy has some history to it. For our family, the holidays are very much about established traditions: putting up the usual decorations, eating a special meal, listening to the same Christmas album (John Denver and the Muppets, what else?), exchanging gifts and staying up until the hour when hooves can very nearly be heard on the rooftop. Even though I’ll never know who owned this book before it came into my hands, I like the feeling of continuity their existence gives me. I like the way it reminds me that the new books I gave and received as gifts this year may go on to be read by far removed others some day, after chance, change or time have taken them off our own shelves.

I don’t like to leave much of a mark on brand new books as I read them (pencil is an exception). I don’t bend the spine and I try to keep the cover flat. But, I like the idea of someone else experiencing the marks I¬†have left. Will they like the same passages I have? Will they laugh at the same moments? Will they also read it on a plane journeying homeward, returning to the house they grew up in, to the comfortable room where they read their first words while bright winter sunlight filtered in through the frost on the window glass?

Liz Gillett

Building the Dream Home Library

For the first time in my life, I have been given the opportunity to transform a room into a personal library. Instead of bookcases here, there and everywhere (arguably, not a bad thing), my many books will share a single cosy, easily browsed home.

When offered this chance, my first thought was “what have I done to deserve this?” and my second was to wonder what the perfect home library should have apart from, well, books. After some research and reminiscence, here’s the list I came up with:

Ladders on Rails

Having spent a few years working in a store in the US that has these, my love affair with library ladders has been cemented. They are practical, yes, but they are also just so, very, very charming.

libarary ladder

A Spiral Staircase

Henry Higgins had one so…why not me? It would be a perfect spot for off-the-cuff singing and elocution.


A Secret Passage

I’m not certain that¬†Young Frankenstein was what made me obsessed with secret passages as a child, all I know is that discovering the fact that pulling up the bottom board of a cubbyhole in my room allowed me to crawl into the closet of the next room over was a significant moment. Also, the whole pull-out-the-right-book-(or candle)-and-the-bookcase-swings-open gag is a classic that deserves entry in any great library.

put the candle back

A Window Seat

I’ve always associated window seats with avid reading, probably because I grew up using bookplates that sported the image ‘Picture-Books in Winter’ by¬†Jessie Willcox Smith from A Child’s Garden of Verses (see below).


A Leather Easy Chair

I imagine it looking something like this:

leather chair

Obviously, the burgundy smoking jacket and beard are also a must. They just go with the chair.

And a Cosy Sleeping Spot for The Dog

Because no matter how sad and bookish she tries to look, she’s definitely not allowed on the leather easy chair.

kaddy book

Liz Gillett

Non-Books on our Bookshelves

With the rise of the e-book we have come up against the idea that, some horrible day in the future, bookshelves will become either obsolete or purely decorative, filled with items other than books. But, to be honest, my bookshelves have always been half-function/half-decoration and, as such, have always contained non-book objects. Some of my favourite of these at the moment are:

Cricket Balls

(born in the US, I’m only now beginning to understand why the Ashes is a big deal)


A Red Papier M√Ęch√©¬†and Wood Cow


& this Vintage-style Artwork of two Flappers Boxing

(by Wellington-area artist Rache McMullen)


I have good reason to believe that I’m not the only book-lover who enjoys displaying the odd non-book item in this way. While browsing the new Bookshelfies Tumblr and the Flickr stream from Booksellers NZ’s 2010 competition “New Zealand’s Next Top Bookshelf” I found examples of the following living among contributors’ books:


evangelion dollowl figurineskull

Decorative Apparel

sunglassesviking hat

And One Young Fellow Even Had a Few of These on Display

cricket ball

Looking at books through the lens of d√©cor has become increasingly popular, but I think most readers love books both as physical objects and as receptacles of story and knowledge. In many cases, I would argue, the non-book items on our bookshelves hold a similar magic, selected for display because they are imbued with memory or represent some part of our personalities, rather than just because they look good among a row of paper spines. Maybe I’m wrong. But I don’t think I am.

Liz Gillett

Making Paper Book Covers

On a recent trip to Tokyo I was well impressed by the number of people reading physical books (as opposed to e-books)¬†on the train. As it turns out, many young people in Japan still prefer the “real thing” when it comes to their books.

The second thing I noticed about these readers is that many of the books they held were covered with paper or cloth that presumably protected the book while also concealing the title, etc. from other passengers. This immediately reminded me of protecting textbooks with paper grocery bag covers when I was at school in the US. An oddly fond memory.

The image and text design on book covers is often part of what draws us to a particular title as browsers, but, let’s face it, not every cover is Chip Kidd quality and, frankly, sometimes I don’t want everyone else on the bus to know what I’m reading (it’s not always Dostoevsky). So I decided to give making book covers another try.

Step One:

Pick the book you’d like to cover (hardback or paperback makes no difference), select some paper (I chose wrapping paper that had been used once already but you could also use newspaper, paper bags, old mailing envelopes, etc.) and grab a pair of scissors.


Step Two:

Cut away excess paper until you have a rectangle such that, when folded in half, the paper is about 5 cm larger than the book on every side.



Step Three:

Aligning the book with the paper to judge size, fold down the top and bottom edges of the paper until it is the same height as the book.



Step Four:

Gently slide the flaps created by these folds over the corners of the book’s front cover and pull the paper down until about 5 cm lie on the inside of the book’s cover. Crease the paper at the edge of the cover.



Step Five:

Repeat Step Four for the book’s back cover. Try to make sure that you have pulled the paper tight enough that when you close the book the paper will sit snugly over the whole object.


Step Six:

Enjoy reading your now anonymous and colourful text.


For more on this style of paper book cover, check out the video that reminded me how they were made.

Also, here’s a short blog post on book covers in Japan. Once my sewing machine is up and running, cloth covers may be in my future.

Liz Gillett

Underlined Passages — Favourite Words from my Bookcase

I write in my books. It’s a habit I picked up as an undergraduate studying English Literature. After four years of marking meaningful passages to refer back to, I found I just couldn’t stop. In fact, I didn’t want to. Although many people find the idea of writing in books taboo, underlining and bracketing allows me to quickly thumb through a book and find the bits that meant the most to me while reading it. Below I’ve included a selection of favourite marked passages from the books on my shelves. Hopefully they’ll make you feel, as I did, the need to reach for a pencil.

Blue Nights

by Joan Didion


“In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.”



“As adults we lose memory of the gravity and terrors of childhood.”



“Aging and its evidence remain life’s most predictable events, yet they also remain matters we prefer to leave unmentioned, unexplored…”


Cloud Atlas

by David Mitchell

cloudatlas1“Despondency makes one hanker after lives one never led.”



“A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”


The Fault in Our Stars

by John Green

faultinourstars1An Imperial Affliction was¬†my book, in the way my body was my body and my thoughts were my thoughts.”


faultinourstars3“I liked being a person. I wanted to keep at it.”


faultinourstars4“You’re arguing that the fragile, rare thing is beautiful simply because it is fragile and rare. But that’s a lie, and you know it.”


The Forrests

by Emily Perkins

forrests1“…because their own lives were full too of the one foot in front of the other, the confusion about how best to proceed.”


forrests2“The blinding joy of it, even when dread trickled down like an egg cracked over her scalp that first time she realised the flashing lights and the siren of the cop car were actually directed at her.”

forrests3“Either integration or a burn-off. You made a decision and everything followed from that, and the older you got the more impossible it was to see through the Vaseline lens of time back into the past, your alternative lives, the ones you never now would lead.” (This one makes me think of the poem¬†The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost)



by Jonathan Franzen

freedom1“He seemed so certain of her goodness that eventually he wore her down.”


freedom2“There’s a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else’s work in the morning; it’s as if stillness experiences pain in being broken.”


freedom3“The house was small and he was big in it.”


Mortal Fire

by Elizabeth Knox


“…once you’ve been crazy the possibility of slippage feels like the only real certainty.”



“He writes things like ‘Humans are animals made of memories.’ Fine sounding, soap-bubble thoughts.”



“The geologist, six years ago now, hadn’t defied anything to climb the hill. He’d had his own powerful magic–the ordinary magic that extraordinarily interested people always have.”


Sea Hearts

by Margo Lanagan


“No one else seemed to notice how high or heightened everything had gone, how the essence of things rushed and flapped in my heart.”


seahearts1“Seals do not sit about and tell, the way people do, and their lives are not eventful in the way that people’s are, lines of story combed out again and again, in the hope that they will yield more sense with every stroke.”


seahearts“How piddling I was, in the general immensity! And how lovely it was to be tiny and alone, to have quickened to living for a moment here, to be destined soon to blink out and let time wash away all mark and remembrance of me.”


seahearts2“…and me, under my cloud, with my heart inside me like the husk of something.”


Super Sad True Love Story

by Gary Shteyngart

supersad1“‘You’re my sacred ones,’ I told the books. ‘No one but me still cares about you. But I’m going to keep you with me forever. And one day I’ll make you important again.'”


supersad2“Like the immutability of God or the survival of the soul, I knew they would prove a mirage, but still I grasped for belief. Because I believed in her.”


supersad3“…he thought of himself as just an empty spot cruising through a ridiculous world.”

Liz Gillett

Forgetting What We Read

ant on peony

In a recent post for The New Yorker, Ian Crouch discusses an issue that has plagued me of late, The Curse of Reading and Forgetting, a curse which has been brought to my attention multiple times in the past few months.

First, a friend told me he was reading World War Z and, hearing I had read it a few years before, was saddened to learn that all I remembered from the book was a blind zombie hunter and a man who escaped his city apartment with nothing but a katana.

Next, a neighbour had to walk me through her reference to¬†Franzen’s Freedom,¬†even though I read it less than two years ago.

Now, I’m reading Rebecca Stead’s¬†When You Reach Me, a middle grade novel full of references to Madeleine L’Engle’s¬†A Wrinkle in Time. ¬†L’Engle’s series was one of my favourites as a child, yet it took me nearly 100 pages in Stead’s book to recognize that Wrinkle¬†was the tale being referenced (it wasn’t mentioned by name until later).

Forgetting past knowledge is something most people come to accept over time, particularly after graduating from high school or university and realizing, a few years later, that although you may remember that force equals mass times acceleration, you no longer have any idea how to apply that concept, or that where you used to be able to conjugate numerous irregular French verbs, now when you try to say “I speak a little French” it comes out “I speak small French.”

Because I’ve always been a voracious reader, I know there are probably hundreds of books whose plots I’ve experienced and forgotten. ¬†Even the memory of my favourite books, the few books I’ve read more than once, starts to feel slippery as time passes between readings. ¬†I would say that writing about and discussing books deeply helps the memory to stay, but when I look back at the titles I read for my Literature degree, I still despair of remembering anything much about The Republic, even though I’m sure I read it three separate times.

Failure of memory may be part of the reason I’m so obsessed with underlining and writing marginalia. ¬†If I own the book, I will be marking it up as I read it. ¬†But don’t worry, these days I always use pencil. ¬†I know I won’t have time to re-read all the books I’ve loved, not if I plan to find new stories as well, but going to my shelf and flipping through, I can quickly find reminders of why I loved them, quotes that encapsulate something of their feel, quotes that are quickly recognized and re-treasured. ¬†The right word, the right phrase, to a reader is like the scent of lily-of-the-valley on the wind, bringing us back to our parent’s garden in early spring, ants crawling on the un-bloomed buds of the peonies.

Liz Gillett

Four Unusual Bookshops Around the Globe

Whenever I travel I make a point of stopping into at least one local independent bookshop. I’ve been lucky enough to explore many beautiful bookish spaces this way, but haven’t yet encountered any as unusual as the four below.

Castle Arkdale

Located in Wisconsin, USA, this medieval castle-inspired bookshop was once a manure tank. During the video interview below one of the owners indicates that even on hot days you’d never know the building ever held anything besides books.castle arkdale

Selexyz Dominicanen

In Maastricht, Holland, this shop makes its home below the arches of a gorgeous 13th-century Dominican church. Watch the video for a more extensive look at the space.

cathedral bookstore

The Book Barge

In various canals around the UK, one may be lucky enough to encounter this quaint book store, most often moored in Lichfield, Staffordshire. ¬†For more on The Book Barge,¬†click through to Lee Rourke’s piece for the Guardian.

book barge 1

book barge2

La caverne aux livres

Built into an old train car in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, La caverne aux livres is a second-hand bookshop sure to appeal to any traveller.




Now, which to visit first?