What books would you rescue from a burning building?

There are novels you read over and over again, books that seems to resonate through you, novels you’d brave fire for. Blogger Alison-Goodman calls them talisman books, those “that ward off the disappointments and insecurities of everyday life.”

There are probably three talisman books I’d rescue from a burning building.
Burning books you'd rescueThe ones I would save

1) Epic dreams

My dogeared paperback copy of Lord of the Rings – yes, I know the book is replaceable easily enough, it isn’t as if it’s out of print or anything like that, and anyway I could probably quote you the entire damned book chapter and verse if you asked.  But sometimes it isn’t JUST THE BOOK.

And this book – broken-spined, tattered, beloved – this book was probably one of the first thing that made me kneel at the altar of fantasy and begin SERIOUS worship there. Tolkien made me realize that the big epic dreams that crowded my imagination were FOR REAL, and were valuable. This book is the physical embodiment of that realization for me. It’s a talisman, not just because of its identity but because of what it represents, the kind of hugeness and wonder and awe and the way it made me cognisant of my place in this world.

2) I’d like to say … 

I’d like to say “Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay, because it’s one of the best BOOKS I’ve ever read, genre quite aside, the writing and the story make this book amazing for me, and so does the visceral emotional connection I feel to the underlying themes of the book.

I’d like to say “Nine Princes in Amber”, the now out-of-print paperback edition that made Roger Zelazny lift his eyebrows in utter astonishment when I gave it to him to sign and ask me where on earth I’d got that copy because it had been out of print for YEARS – because of the legacy that Zelazny left me during the writing workshop which he presided over and which I had the privilege to attend (in the year that he died).

I might, in fact, say all too many names and hesitate before my bookshelf too long and burn up with my beloved books before I could decide which of the novels on the shelf would be worth the saving.

In the end I might reach for a volume of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, because all stories live inside that book, and I could read them and dream up the rest of a lost world by his tropes.

3) My grandfather’s scribbles

My third choice would be a book that’s irreplaceable. It’s a really disreputable ancient and ill-favored old-fashioned hardcover book with dull gray covers which give nothing away and which have been chipped away at the corners and on the spine – a broken down book, loved well long before I had my hands on it, with scribbled commentary in the margins and on the bottom of the pages. You’d think it was worthless if you set eyes on it; you might expect to see it for ten cents at a yard sale and probably wouldn’t take it if it was pressed into your hands for nothing at all. You’d think it had no value beyond being something to start a bonfire with.

You’d be wrong.

This is the book that lived beside my grandfather’s bed, the book that he read and re-read and re-read, the scribbles in the margins are his thoughts, and in his hand. He’s been gone more than twenty years. He’ll never speak to me again except through this book, and I WOULD go through fire to get it.

Those are talisman books in the purest and most glittering sense of the word. There are many many books that I love, and have adored over the years.

There were the books which drew my tears – “Les Miserables”, Howard Spring’s “My Son, My Son”, Karl May’s “Winnetou” (although it took me YEARS to unlearn all the “facts” I though I knew about the American Indian culture in general and the Apache in particular after I finished reading his work). Others include Jack London’s “Call of the Wild”, almost ANYTHING by Ursula le Guin, a book not many people reading this will have heard of but whose title translates as “The Time of Death” by a writer of my own tongue and tribe by the name of Dobrica Cosic and another book by one of my own, Ivo Andric’s “Bridge on the Drina”.

Lest you should think that I spent my entire reading life weeping, there are books that drew my laughter – Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”, T. H. White’s “Once and Future King”.

And there are the comfort books I return to because I have loved them and  because I know them and because if I am tired or ailing, I know I can go back to them and find solace there – “Song of Arbonne”, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, Mary Stewart’s Merlin books, “Shadow of the Moon” by M. M. Kaye or any fat historical novel by Sharon Penman (but particularly “Here Be Dragons”), Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible”, lots of stuff by Pearl Buck, books by Henryk Sienkiewicz, John Galsworthy, Boris Pasternak, Nikos Kazantzakis, Daphne du Maurier. Of more recent vintage, Catherynne Valente whose poetic vision enthralls me or Neil Gaiman whose dark and sardonically twisted tales and characters draw me in and China Mieville whose surgical command of the English language leaves me breathless and humbled.

I am a certified bookworm, rarely without a book halfway through somewhere in the house, often several in different parts of the house. And if I’m not reading them, I’m writing them.

4) What I am

Would you forgive me if I added #4 to my Talisman Book list, above? One of my own, a hardcover edition of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, the book to remind me what I am,  what the culmination is of all the gifts that all my other books have poured like gems into my waiting spirit.

The truth is that I haven’t actually re-read the whole thing, not once, since it was first published. Possibly I am too afraid to, afraid of what I will find within those pages whose origins lie so deep within myself, afraid of all the things I will possibly – no, probably – find in there that I would have done differently, or would change even now if I could. But even if I never read those words that I wrote again in their entirety I’ll take a copy with me. And show it to people, after, if I lose the power of speech and they ask me who or what I am. Because that is what I am. Will always be. I am the creator of THIS THING, this book, this collection of words, this story… this talisman.

I am someone who loves books. Someone who loves reading them, who grew up to live and breathe writing them. A once-and-future writer – with hands and spirit overflowing with the talismans of language, of words. Someone who was lucky enough to have had poetry poured into my soul when I was just a child, and who was allowed to wander through the wild wood of story unfettered and free to taste of whatever fruit or stream I could find. I grew up in an  Eden of Word – and I still live there today.

With all my talismans safe beside me.

So – what are YOUR talisman books?

Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?- Eileen Gunn

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Alma Alexander     My books     Email me

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