Books were a rare treat in our house. My father only read Penny Dreadfuls he bought at railway kiosks, printed on cheap, sepia coloured paper. They were either short crime stories or westerns. Resembling newsprint, they appeared in two columns in a font that was hard to read. For my short-sighted father, they would have presented quite a challenge, especially as he was reading in a language that wasn’t his own.
I learnt to read Enid Blyton’s Noddy books which were readily available at our school library, translated into German. I read and reread his adventures under my doona using a torch to illuminate the page. Lights had gone out long ago.
I loved losing myself in stories, pretending I was right there with the characters who had become my friends. I was closer to Pippi Longstocking than any of my classmates. I could anticipate her every move and even finish her sentences. She was a braver version of me, an unconventional girl who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
When a book fair was announced at our school, I begged my mother to be allowed to go. There were two long trestle tables with books displayed face out. My mother, seeing the wide-eyed look of desire, whispered caution in my ear. ‘You can only choose one,’ she said.
Many wonderful stories beckoned but I knew that choosing one could never satisfy. But the thickest book there was different to all the others. It promised to reveal the whole world A-Z and that was the one I chose.
When we arrived home, my mother took out our sharpest knife and ran it between each adjacent page. It was only then that the contents of the encyclopedia were revealed. I inhaled the smell of the paper and ran my fingers along the cloth spine. I knew I would treasure this book.
On page twenty-five, I found a map of Australia. Back then, it seemed like an exotic place far, far away. I remember looking at the depiction of a spear throwing Aborigine, wheat, gold, and kangaroos. I never imagined I would go there.
I learnt so much about the world around me from this book. Everything from descriptions of wild animals to how motion pictures work and even the symbols used in Morse code could be found between its covers. I read and reread many of its pages for years.
Today, I have several thousand books in my collection. I still delight in their smell and occasionally, I still have to cut open their pages. Books present both a sensual and cerebral pleasure and while there are many books I treasure, the pride of my collection is this quaint old-fashioned children’s encyclopedia. After all, it started my love affair with collecting books.