Monday, December 05, 2005

First Book: Stories to leave you wanting more

By Jeanette Winterson

Taken from The Times

This is the Christmas books issue. Let’s celebrate all the things we love to read, and all the things we read and fall in love with.

Everybody remembers the first book that made a difference to them. Often, that book is still the one we give to our lovers, or wait excitedly to pass on to the kids in our lives.

The shared secret of a book you both adore is like nothing else. Even though thousands of other people have read it, it is still a private world. Certain cities, like Venice, have this quality, but that is because such a city is essentially an invention. And a continual re-invention; the outline is always there, but we make up the meaning as we go along.

This is not to say that the great books we love are wax tablets where we impress our own image. Rather, they have such power of purpose, revealed in form and language that they interpret us much better than we interpret them. That is why a strong text will keep armies of academics in salaries for generations. Most of this secondary work falls and fails as time passes, but the work itself remains. It is always possible to say something new about Shakespeare or Keats or the Brontes or Woolf. It is always possible to write (yet) another book about Venice. The thing is bigger than we are.

It would be wonderful if Christmas were a celebration of all the stories we have read and told, beginning with its own story of a difficult birth in a draughty stable. Most of us rail at the commercialism of Christmas, but we still load up with as much we can carry.

Sometimes it is necessary to pile up books like sandbags against the outside world – please god not another mince pie or singing Santa – a good book is a place to hide behind.

This year I am only giving books as presents. My godchildren, nine and six, are just at the point where I can start discussing favourite books with them, and mapping their meanings onto my own. In this way, we re-draw the territory. The book changes shape, because books are shape-changers. Like Venice, you know exactly what square is over the next bridge, and then suddenly, you realise you have made a mistake – or a discovery. Kids make wonderful readers because they pile into the book like backpackers off the bus. They aren’t sophisticated, and they don’t come with expectations. But they are sharp and alive, and they bring the venerable text back to its beginnings – books are always new, even when they are very old.

I have made a deal with my godchildren this year, that we will all write our own Christmas stories, and read them to each other on Christmas Eve. All children love to hear stories, and to tell them. It is a pity that we soon manage to lobotomise them into believing that the material world of more and more stuff, is of greater value than the world they can imagine and invent, or discover in the imagination and inventions of others. Christmas could be a time to correct this – and books are one way of doing that.

I might encourage them with snippets from a charming edition, just out, of The Hyde Park Gate News – The Stephen Family Newspaper . This is the weekly newspaper complied by Virginia Woolf, (Stephen) and her various brothers and sisters, for the entertainment of themselves and their parents, between 1892 and 1985. It is in manuscript in the British Library, and printed here for the first time.

I admit that I groan when any more Bloomsbury ephemera appears, but this deserves its place, not because scholars need it - but because it is fun. Virginia Stephen was ten, and the sharp wit is already present: ‘On Christmas Day Mrs Stephen and the four children went to the Lyceum. What the pantomime was about it is difficult to say. Santa Claus came down on his sledge from the ceiling. Then he made several moral remarks in a burly tone. Dances followed, then a bit of Babes in the Wood was introduced, and the babes, after dying in the orthodox way, are brought to life again by Santa Claus. The most interesting character was the dog Tatters.’

Scholars may think this leads us towards Miss La Trobe in Between the Acts; I think it’s a delightful way of encouraging kids to write their own Christmas this year.

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