I tried to find a suitable translation of the Romanian “cartea de căpătâi” into French and English. None of the versions I found have got the metaphorical richness expressed in Romanian. A closer meaning would be “the key book”, “the favourite book” or “the fundamental book”. As the three versions could express different personal choices, I rather went for “the outstanding book”, which, I believe, expresses the best what I wanted to say in this article.
My first book was the story of Bambi, the famous baby deer. It was a colouring book, so without text, and I was happy to fill in the forms with the appropriate colours. The story as such got life with imagination, effort and some goodwill. Even today I remember the key moments of Bambi’s story.
My grandparents gave me the first real book. The book is a collection of tales and stories by a famous Romanian writer, Ion Creangă. I still have it today. I remember that the reading implied a huge effort from my side, but the effort was worth as, in return, I realised that I managed to read the book on my own.
The first novel I read was “Dick Sand, A Captain at Fifteen” by Jules Verne (“Căpitan la cincisprezece ani” in Romanian and “Un capitaine de quinze ans”, in original French). It was, again, a gift from the grandparents. The book is a fascinating story, which kept me locked in the house for several days, despite my parents’ desperation to get me out and play with the other children. I was eight years old. It was wintertime and the snow covered most of the village’s houses. Something that one can enjoy not very often…
I then discovered the village library. There were a lot of books translated from Russian into Romanian. There were famous Russian writers and… the latest stars of the soviet literature. I also found some Western authors. There were still relaxed times in the ‘70s and the regime still tolerated books with “capitalist” origin.
My book collection grew little by little. My grandfather built my first bookcase, made out of an old doorframe. I was so proud to order my books alphabetically or group them into categories: prose and poetry. Drama books came later.
During the school years the Romanian curriculum included lists of compulsory readings, according to each study year. Not all books were attractive, I must admit, but I made the effort of reading them. Certain book chapters were in a number of school subjects, so that it was mandatory to familiarise with the whole book before analysing a chapter.
One of my teachers told me to finish every book I start. This would have been a sign of respect for the author work. I followed this piece of advice many years after. I gave up some years ago when I decided to abandon any book, which does not get me after some 50-100 pages. Abandoning a book reading does not necessarily mean lack of respect, but using the time to do something better or nicer.
For many years I read many books, which were on my sister’s compulsory reading lists in school. There are five years between us, but I managed to keep up with her. My efforts were rewarded not only during my studies, but all my life I would say.
I remember how difficult was to find two books by Mikhail Sholokhov: “Virgin Soil Upturned” and “And Quiet Flows the Don”.
The books focus on Russian peasants and their determination to be part of the socialism era and to work at the kolkhoz. A kolkhoz was something called “cooperative” in my country, which was a form of collective farming. A collective farm was made out of the former lands of the cooperative’s members. In other words all members were owners, but their feeling was that none of them had any shares in finally.
Sholokhov was a talented writer and perhaps this is one of the reasons he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
Today I still remember his vivid nature descriptions and the way he managed to marry and picture in words people and the never-ending Russian countryside landscapes. But I felt that the happy life of his characters had a sort of artificial dimension as the Soviet ideas included working and sharing everything at the kolkhoz. Or maybe people were happy, who knows?
I must admit I felt a similar community “breath” in the village I grew up. Those times changed people and their basic values, turning everything upside down, something that one can still see it alive today in my home country.
My mother rarely read a book. It was perhaps of the exhausting work of the field, in addition to her current obligations at home. My father had some more extra time, as he was a tractor driver. He then read more often and used to share his reading with us. He was also a passionate newspaper reader.
There were pleasant and less pleasant readings coming out from the compulsory lists in school. I think there was not a matter of taste, but rather an obligation to fulfil, according to the curriculum requirements.
One of my first outstanding readings was “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez. It was recommended to me by one of my teachers in high school. Its first reading was an elaborated activity. The number of characters with close and similar names, along with the magic realism style required some reading efforts. This is the book I re-read six times, at different ages. With each reading I rediscovered meanings and nuances that I could not see before.
In the ’80s especially, books in Romania were genuine “treasures”. Most of the time they were sold on “under the counter”. We actually paid the price and something additional to compensate for the “favour”. I was always ready to offer the eternal gift of those years, a pack of Kent cigarettes, to preserve our name on the list with the favoured client readers. In this way we were only able to fulfil our reading needs. Not many books we managed to get in this way were worth the effort. We repeatedly were the victims of the librarians who over appreciated certain books, for certain advertising and commercial “reasons”.
However, I read many outstanding books at that time, despite a number of commercial and political constrains. There were people, especially party activists who used to buy books according to their size, no matter the author or the book value. They chose the books based on their size, so that, while on the shelf, the books won’t disturb the eye.
That was a form of social egalitarianism, a trend specific to the communist doctrines, which appeared reflected even at this level, on a bookshelf. It was clear to me that those people thought that purchasing books is enough to enjoy some culture. Reading was certainly not an activity they need to enjoy.
My family played a key role in maintaining the reading passion. On one hand my father recommended us the “serious” book style, such as “How the Steel Was Tempered” by Nikolai Ostrovsky. On the other hand my sister kept recommending books from western literature. Our grandparents were “promoting” the indigenous literature, mainly Romanian classics. There also were the “official” recommendations by my schoolteachers.
Later on, as a teacher, I always encouraged my students to read. What teacher would not do that? I always recommended them good books, not only the ones from the compulsory curriculum list, but also other relevant books, unlisted officially.
When some of them were “difficult” or required more reading effort I helped out discover their essence. I do not know whether I succeeded or not to seed the love of reading. It is obvious that nowadays, with so many easy information sources, reading remains a more elaborated activity, especially in terms of making an imagination exercise. If a reader is unaware of it, and does not cope with the imagination effort, the reading is eventually poor and even meaningless.
In my entire life I had the chance to discover and read thousands of books. Even if we moved house five times to date, I managed to keep some hundred books, which I considered my outstanding books. Very often I re-read some of them. I also check certain pages of others for various reasons. I never threw away any book, but I donated some thousands.
I owe a great deal to books and reading stays as a sort of daily food, which I can never give up.