Sometimes, being a deprived child can be a real advantage.
How was I deprived? Certainly not by any lack of food, clothes, or any other necessity. In fact, you could say I was raised in a typically middle class way except in the matter of books. We were the only family I know that had a den with an entire wall that was nothing but books.
To put it mildly, we children were not given free rein in the library. My parents had the sound notion that little boys are hard to distinguish from total barbarians and should be carefully trained before they are allowed to handle anything you really cared about.
My parents had a very old-fashioned love of books. No, more a reverence for books. For they loved not merely what the books held but the books themselves. I remember being dragged behind my father from one musty-smelling old shop to another where he would wander endlessly through the ceiling-high shelves and between the piled up stacks. He would pick up book after book, carefully examining the covers, the binding, and the paper before he ever got around to perusing the contents.
There were a lot of rules in my parents’ house, but none more stern than those surrounding the books. Books are not toys. You don’t touch them without permission. You don’t handle them carelessly. You never run with a book. I cannot imagine what would have happened to me had I ever been caught with a book in one hand and a writing implement in the other.
When we were young, of course, the books were not for us. As a treat, or when we were sick, my parents read to us from them. Eventually, though, we were allowed to actually touch and even read some of the books in our library. As a reward, of course, and only after many proofs of responsibility, but we were finally allowed access to the treasures in the den.
All well and good. But, you see, my parents liked old books. I think they stopped buying anything contemporary sometime around the Second World War. Even the children’s books were old. Dr. Seuss? Never heard of him. Charlotte’s Web? What’s that?
This made me a bit culturally deprived. I simply didn’t share the same stories and imaginary characters that the other kids had in common. We don’t often think of it, but each generation has their own fund of folklore-of-the-moment that joins them and places them in their own little space in time. It gives them a unique shared perspective.
I missed all that.
But there were compensations. I had the past. My childhood was filled with the creatures and characters of a generation or two before. The original Peter Rabbit. Uncle Wiggily’s Airship. Tom Swift and his Wizard Camera. And on and on. As I grew older it was all the original Tarzan books, the awful potboilers of Edgar Wallace, and the wonderfully overheated atmospheres of Sax Rohmer.
Who is Sax Rohmer, you ask? Unless you grew up in the twenties and thirties (or was as culturally deprived as I was), you probably don’t know the name. Sax Rohmer is little remembered or read today, although a few old movies introduce new generations to his greatest creation, the sinister yellow-peril avatar, Dr. Fu Manchu.
It’s a pity, in a way. Aside from the blatant racism that probably helped prime his readers to hate and fear the Japanese of WWII as inscrutable and unfathomably cruel enemies, Rohmer spun wonderful tales of an opium-soaked Orient, a mystical Egypt of amulets and still-powerful magic and a fog-shrouded London that hid untold horrors. He is the spiritual father of every Mummy picture ever made and about half of the horror movies of that fountainhead, Hammer Films.
I particularly remember meeting a wonderful character named Morris Klaw in Rohmer’s The Dream Detective. Small and elderly, he had a unique method of detecting and kept repeating his favorite phrase, “Thoughts are things, you know, thoughts are things!” Assisted by his beautiful daughter, Isis, he would sleep in the room where the crime was committed. There his specially sensitized brain would absorb the still lingering psychic emanations from the crime and his dreams would relive them.
For some reason Morris Klaw and his dreams have stayed with me. It’s not just that they were vivid stories well told in the over-heated style of the day. I think it was the way Rohmer gave a new spin to an old idea. How many of our best ghost stories, from Bloody Mary in the Tower on down, are about those sad spirits condemned to endlessly repeat the climactic moment of their lives?
I suspect our love of such stories is also part of our desire to capture the past. These ghosts are the past frozen in time and preserved for us to look at. And that satisfies something in us. We are only too aware of the fleeting nature of life. How gratifying to be able to reach out and actually grasp a past somehow made static.
How many more ghost stories are about someone actually meeting a specter? About actually being able to ask questions of some spirit? And what about all those stories of time travel? We want to try to find out both what lies ahead of us and what actually happened in the past.
We are a strange species. We are haunted by the past. We live in a world built by others whom we can never really know…and it drives us crazy. “The moving hand writes and, having writ, moves on” is not good enough for us. We want more. We want to capture the past. Stop it in its flight.
There are lots of arguments about exactly that, about what truly defines us as human. We are Man the Tool Maker…except there are other animals that make and use tools. We are The Animal That Laughs…except that we do not really know whether other animals are amused or not. Every such definition of Man that I am familiar with is open to similar challenges.
Who are we, then?
Let me suggest another definition: We are Man the Inheritor. We are that strange species that wanted to make our experiences outlive human memory. To pass on our lessons to generations unborn.
An obvious impossibility…except that we did it. We are the animal that actually invented a way to freeze the ephemeral past and hold it in our two hands.
We call them books.