Over the last few months I have been thinking (more than usually) about the importance of literature (perhaps because I just got my Literature degree). Many decisions I have taken over the years have been deeply influenced by books; many important friendships have been born over the talk of books and literary heroes; I have acquired my deepest convictions because I have had the chance to challenge them with a written page.
To say books have influenced my life would be an understatement; to say they have shaped me as a person would probably be more accurate. For every reader the words on the page, the characters and speeches become an important part of the self, lands never visited acquire colour and depth, the power of words to be both soothing or despairing appears appaling: books are handled with care.
There are different levels to literature. Often when one is studying literature and books become the matter of such study, come other levels. We read to learn not only the ideas written, but how they’re put together, we unravel the mysteries that glue letters and words together, we delve deeper into its matter, language. But before that there is a primal level, in which we read to live other lives than ours, to live ours deeply, to find comfort or to search for answers; to tie ourselves tighter to the world, for literature is never an escape. I would say my approach to literature has always been more primal than intellectual, that’s something I can’t help and with which I struggle every time I have to “analyse” a text.
There is also another level to literature that has to do with all the circumstances that surround a work of literature, specifically the material circumstances that surround a book. Have you even lent a book annotated by you? Have you ever read a book with someone else’s annotations? It feels almost like prying, an advance on someone’s privacy. That’s because our experience of reading is usually a personal, intimate one. It has not always been so and we could argue about its pros and cons, but for the last couple of centuries at least, literature has become a private, personal experience.
How much of our intimacy we pour into books, both the ones we write and the ones we read, becomes easier to see under specific circumstances, like finding someone who loves your favourite novel, or seeing someone underlined the same passages of a book as you did, or gifting someone a favourite book of yours. I always think that every time I say or write something, some has said the exact samething, put down that exact same feeling and, in most cases, with more beautiful and exact words than I. A book becomes a highly personal object; and because other people can read it, it works kind of like a bridge, a bridge made out of words. A book can be the missing link on a chain, the foundation of a community, the stepstone of a relationship, simply because the language of literature, stories, are a universal matter.
To add to these reflections, last week I read Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Burrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I bought the book for purely sentimental reasons after watching Netflix’s adaptation of it and I half expected it to be disappointing. Turns out this book is a little gem. Written as a series of letters and diary entries, the book follows the journey of the writer Juliet Ashton to Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, to write a book about the occupation.
The incident that takes Juliet to Guernesey is one of those dear coincidences involving books: an old book of hers, Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb, finds its way to Guernesey, where Dawsey Adams, a local, buys it. On the first page Juliet had written her name and address in London, so Dawsey soon writes to her asking if she could send him another book. The past history of books is something I usually wonder about when buying second-hand books: who owned it first?, did they like it?, what do the annotations and folds mean? Shaffer and Burrows dwelve deliciously in the personal bonds we develop towards books, the physicality of reading and the wonders of book collecting:
“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing
instinct in books that brings them to their
perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.”
There are many other themes the novel explores. Perhaps the most evident is its historic setting. The book approaches the German occupation of the Channel Islands in a way that much reminded me of Svetlana Alexievich’s Wars Unwomanly Face: it is the daily habits and routines disrupted by war, the small things that the the occupation implied, that shaped the lives of people forever. The very anecdote of Guernsey’s Literaty Club has to do with the things people did in order to feel human amidst bombing and cruelty: sharing a meal, getting together, reading.
It is the primal, intimate nature of reading protagonises the novel. The novel’s literary focus is intensified by the epistolar form: everything we know about the characters and their past is a story they have put together already, in words, inexact or imcomplete, but as a means of survival.
“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”
Amongst the authors mentioned we have Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens and Charles Lamb, Rainer Maria Rilke. Many times reading The Guernsey Literary… I felk like I was talking to a friend whom I had made read one of my favourite books. The book is, to put it simply, an ode to literature and the many ways in which it is intertwined with life, an ode to literature as a means of survival, as a means of resilience and, most importantly, as a means of resistance.
“We clung to books and to our friends; they
reminded us that we had another part to us.”