Tuesday, May 22, 2007
[Illustration of Toad Hall by David K. Stone (Golden Press, NY, 1968)]
I hear it often enough: "Why do you keep buying books if you haven't read all the ones you have?" Usually I shrug or change the subject, because if I gave the answer I want to - "Shut the Hell up!" - I'd have even fewer friends than I already do.
The real answer, though, is that I believe in everything in its time. Often I like to read multiple books on the same subject back to back, for the sake of immersion. Also, just because I buy a book now doesn't mean I feel like reading it now; I may feel like reading it at 2 AM 10 months from now, only then I may not have the money, and I definitely won't have anyplace to buy it. Vancouver, far from being a city that never sleeps, often goes to bed early.
Of all the books in my library, The Wind in the Willows surely holds the record for delayed gratification.
I've had it since I was at least eight years old; I've schlepped it everywhere with me over the years, through dozens of moves and over thousands of kilometres, yet in all that time I've never even thought about relinquishing it. I've read the first chapter a dozen times at least, but could never bring myself to read beyond than that.
Despite this, I read it on Saturday in one sitting. Why? Simply because its time had come.
And I loved it, of course, as I knew I someday would. Children's literature is oddly soothing (even when it is raucous) and I've been sore in need of soothing lately. Also, the book is rich in poetry, voluble in its praise of the natural world, and May-time in Vancouver is both of these things as well. As a human and an artist, I decided it was finally time to enfold the book's lessons into my life. This time, when I got to the end of the first chapter, I pushed on...
Though The Wind in the Willows is a children's book, children in 1908 were clearly extra smart compared with even adults today. Based on vocabulary alone, it would have been impossible for me to read before now, even if I were to read it at my desk with the ample resources of the Internet handy. Besides an abundance of British-isms, every interaction in the book is subtextually layered, and these layers would have been lost on me until recently.
It is also quite racy for a children's book, unaffected by a puritan urge to protect children from the truth which has infected KidLit of late. Characters smoke and drink (responsibly), firearms are discharged (though no one is killed), and there is even the suggestion of carnality (albeit of the Edwardian, heavily euphemised variety) between a certain Toad and his jailer's daughter. The Toad even gets up in drag, as fine a British tradition as drinking and smoking if ever there was one.
I find it odd that such real-life behaviours should be so frowned upon, yet anthropromorphism - a far more serious crime, really - nevertheless forms the backbone of much children's media.
Inasmuch as everything ever written by the British can be read as a parable about class, The Wind in the Willows does not disappoint. The wealthy Toad is also boastful, incautious, and fickle. Though Badger is heroic, much is made of the common way he speaks. It is Mole and Rat, both firmly middle class, who save the day.
They did, of course, save Kenneth Grahame's day. The immediate success of the book allowed him to quit his job in a bank and depart it for another bank altogether, a river bank - specifically the Thames - where he whiled away his days "messing about in boats" and listening the the wind of the willows, which to his ears, must have sounded like cheering.
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