I have trouble thanking people for gifts. Thanking people for things that are not intrinsically beneficial to me seems inauthentic at best. It is a nice thing to do – to acknowledge the time and thought someone has spent choosing and buying, wrapping and delivering the gift, but I struggle with the concept. If the gift is something I need. Then, yes – I see the logic and then, a thank you is in order. It seems to be more a matter of sentiment. Were I to pretend to genuinely moved by the gesture, I would be as transparent as water, but not to respond, is to invite similar ill-feeling.
I am not sentimental. I often pour over those old questions that are meant to make you really consider you priorities, and give clues as to the type of person you are. For instance: If your house was on fire, and you could only save one thing, what would that be? You are usually allowed to omit the obvious things (family members, pets etc.) but this has always perplexed me. Those who would return for a pet, or a photo album, a cherished item belonging to a late relative are deemed more human and humane than those who would return for an expensive or useful item. Few would admit to going back for a laptop or phone (but I understand that has changed recently, which concerns me deeply). When I ask myself that question, I struggle with everything about it: Why is my house on fire? Why didn’t I put it out? Where are my family? I don’t have any pets. Belongings are just things… stuff. But then I think about my dictionary.
When I was about 12 or 13, I would go to the library, a lot. One day, there was a sale of books, and among the well-thumbed volumes were some older books. One was intriguing. It was thick, with marbled board covers and a half leather bound spine. The words Lampriere and the date 1859 were visible in small capitals in gold. I picked it up and looked at the price: £4. I looked at the spine again and saw that it was a ‘Classical Dictionary’. I had no idea what this was, but I liked classical architecture and words, so I looked inside. I thumbed the pages and the book fell open at NI. I read the first entry: ‘Nestorius – A Bishop of Constantinople who flourished A.D.431. He was condemned and degraded from his episcopal dignity for his heretical opinions.’ I was taken aback – What was this? Who was this person? What was this language? What was episcopal? I knew where Constantinople was, thanks to the old song, but the rest was intriguing. I read on. Nestus, or Nessus – a small river in Thrace… (Where was Thrace? ) Netum – a town of Sicily, now called Noto, Neuri – a people of Sarmatia (where was Sarmatia?)… Nicaea – a widow of Alexander who married Demetrius…
I was enthralled by the names and places immediately, so I bought the book and took it home. I followed the references to their logical ends, pulling the threads of history and stories, places and events. Some of them could be tied together, or led to more, connected threads. Stories and histories began to emerge, piece by piece, name by name. Within a year or two I had discovered Homer and Virgil, Socrates and Plato and more and widened my reading even more. My vocabulary had probably doubled in size and I had learned an appreciation of Latin and Greek syntax which helped me understand yet more words. What a find this old dictionary was!
It has sat on my shelf since then, sandwiched between the complete works of Shakespeare and my Aubrey Beardsley Illustrated copy of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, to be taken down and carefully thumbed from time to time. It is very dilapidated now, and I often think I might like to get it mended, but I'n not sure I could bear to entrust it to someone else.
It struck me that this book might be the one thing I would rescue for my theoretically burning house. But it would not be sentimentality that would spur me – it is just a book. But it represents everything about me and the way I see the world: Snippet of detail, by snippet of detail. The excitement of finding two snippets that have a common thread, or following enough threads to constitute a story of a battle, an adventure or a tragedy – it’s laid out within the pages of that book, just the same way it is within me. That book is the difference between me and almost everyone else… To most: A random collection of defunct facts about irrelevant places and events, but to me, (and hopefully, some others) it was a clue that led to another world; a rich tapestry of magical names and strange language that harks back to ancient times, great deeds and heroes of the intellect and the battlefield.
No, I probably wouldn’t go back for it. It would be difficult to replace, but I have to believe there are one of two more of them out there…