I was talking with a friend the other day, saying that writing the long sad post about my father had gotten me thinking about how I’ve been oddly shy and reticent about posting about other things here; things about which I might reasonably be expected to have a certain level of expertise and knowledge.
“Like what?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “like, you know…books.”
For some reason this made her laugh uncontrollably.
But it’s true. I’ve worried, ludicrously, that if I post in a substantive fashion about books, that I will:
- Make my friends who are also authors think I hate their books if I don’t happen to write about them
- Appear utterly biased if I write glowing praise of my friends’ books
- Offend someone, somewhere
- Otherwise Get It Wrong
Upon reflection, I realize that this is more or less insane. So one of my early New Year’s resolutions is to post more about books. I’m going to start by writing about some of the books that I imprinted upon, the ones that still hold up on rereading, the ones that really shaped aspects of how I see the world. Stealing a phrase from Francis Spufford, I’m calling this “series” Books That Built Me.
First up: Finn Family Moomintroll and other Moomin books by Tove Jansson.
I have owned this book for most of my life, as you can see:
The link above will give you an idea of what the Moomin books are about; I’m going to tell you a few things I took from them, with supporting quotes.
An expansive definition of family and an approach to hospitality:
Moomintroll’s mother and father always welcomed all their friends in the same quiet way, just adding another bed and putting another leaf in the dining-room table. And so Moominhouse was rather full — a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about to-morrow. Very often unexpected and disturbing things used to happen, but nobody ever had time to be bored, and that is always a good thing.
The first restless wanderer I encountered in fiction:
“You talked of plans,” Moomintroll went on. “Have you got any yourself?”
“Yes,” said Snufkin. “I have a plan. But it’s a lonely one, you know.”
Moomintroll looked at him for a long time, and then he said: “You’re thinking of going away.”
Snufkin nodded, and they sat for a while swinging their legs over the water, without speaking, while the river flowed on and on beneath them to all the strange places that Snufkin longed for and would go to quite alone.
And the first obsessive collector:
At last the Hemulen burst out: “How hopeless it all is!” And after another pause he added: “What’s the use? You can have my stamp collection for the next paper-chase.”
“But Hemulen!” said the Snork Maiden, horrified, “that would be awful! Your stamp collection is the finest in the world!”
“That’s just it,” said the Hemulen in despair. “It’s finished. There isn’t a stamp, or an error that I haven’t collected. Not one. What shall I do now?”
And the first sufferer of panic attacks and nameless dread:
A short excerpt of me reading from one of my favorite short stories, “The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters.” Click and you’ll see why I wanted to read it out loud.
At this point I should remind everyone that yes, these are children’s books.
“Every children’s book should have a path in it where the writer stops and the child goes on,” Jansson said. “A threat or a delight that can never be explained. A face never completely revealed.”
What I love about these books, and what stays with me: the combination of coziness and bleakness, the characters that apparently were sometimes based on family and friends, the warm house full of comfort and conversation, the wide world full of adventure and danger just outside.