I like books.
That is a slight understatement. Throughout my childhood I was a veritable bookworm. I have memories from long before I started school about books and libraries. One coming to mind right now is about a school library. Before I started school, my mother and her friend cleaned the school that my brother and sister attended. On the days they cleaned the school I often went with my mom. My mom’s friend had a girl nearly the same age as me. We were best friends at that point and basically had the run of the school while our mothers cleaned.
One night we learned how the colour photocopier in the school library worked. I have a fuzzy recollection that maybe my older brother showed us. We loved books. And we wanted to take all our favourite library books home, but we couldn’t (I don’t know why exactly since that is the point of a library). So we put this newfound photocopier knowledge to use, and with plenty of time to kill, we started photocopying our favourite books like mad. My brother, or whomever else it might have been, had failed to mention that photocopying cost money, per page, and that colour photocopying cost a lot more money than just black and white. Or, maybe they mentioned it, and our kindergarten brains just didn’t quite comprehend it, I don’t remember.
I’m quite sure we got in a fair bit of trouble, my family was pretty poor so my mom was probably understandably angry at the expense we racked up. I don’t remember the punishment, though I’m sure there was one. All I remember is feeling ecstatic that I could copy all these things I wanted to read, particularly Sally Dick & Jane and some sort of ‘modern’ encyclopedia type book that had cool pictures in it of all the things it described, and take them home with me.
I also recall, in first grade at that same school, my teacher helping me clean out my desk once. There were 31 Berenstain Bears books crammed into my desk. I distinctly remember reading those books, tucked halfway into my desk, during class. Clearly I thought I was being quite sneaky about it, looking back I’m sure it was not even slightly discreet. Those desks were fairly small and children are never as discreet as they hope to be.
So, books and me go way back.
There are plenty of books that I have loved enough to read multiple times in my life. But there is only one set of books & stories that I have read over and over and over and over. I’m not sure where or when I found them, I assume it must have been the library here in my hometown. It started with the children’s books Bonny’s Big Day, Only One Woof, and Moses the Kitten by James Alfred Wight writing under the pseudonym James Herriot.
I have loved the stories Herriot told since the first time I read then. I have gone back to them many times in my life. At some point in my life, when I was still quite obsessed with horses, my sister bought me a giant hardcover copy of The Best of James Herriot for Christmas. To this day it is probably the most cherished book in my collection. Those stories held the most amazing commentary about the things I loved most: animals. I believe those stories also planted the seeds for my current obsession with England and my desire to live in the English countryside. Though now that I’ve visited England, I’d happily stretch that desire to include the Welsh, Scottish, or Irish countryside, just to keep my options open.
In 2012, when my sister took me to England, we visited Thirsk, where Alfred Wight actually practiced as a country vet. I am quite sure I slept for most of the drive to Thirsk, which is a shame. When we got to the James Herriot museum I was quite awake, and I remember being totally enthralled by all of it. That afternoon is probably my clearest memory from the whole trip. I think I took more pictures of that museum than of any other place we visited on that trip. I also learned, as you can see in the photo above, that technically, in a perfect situation, I am strong enough to pull a calf.
More recently my dad has read the boxed set I brought home from that trip, and so I’ve gotten to share some of my enthusiasm for the books with him as he read through them.
Of all the books I’ve read so far in my life, those have stuck with me the most.
A few months ago I pared down my book collection and took a large stack to the used bookstore in town. After giving my books to the staff person, my sister and I browsed through the stacks. In them I found a few more Herriot books, and old copy of All Things Wise and Wonderful, and James Herriot’s Yorkshire. The latter is a beautiful photo book, with wonderful stories, of his beloved Yorkshire countryside. The photos are accompanied by historical information and stories about his experiences in each place. I’m slowly working my way through that one right now, and as I go, adding place names to my “need to visit” list. I also find myself looking up many of the places on Google Streetview and exploring them after reading the stories.
Herriot also has a wonderful writing style. It is simple to read and understand and just flows beautifully from one page to the next, drawing you in. His stories are filled with the full range of emotion, and I feel like I experience every single one of them as if I had lived the moments myself.
I aspire to write as compellingly as him. James Herriot’s stories fill my heart with joy, curiosity, laughter and peace. What more can you ask of a book?