My Most Precious Book

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In general, I’m cavalier about books. I lend them and therefore lose them, scribble in them, festoon them in pink Post-it notes, share baths with them and pile them up on shelves and tables in no particular order.

Only one book is treated differently. Traditional Romance and Tale: How Stories Mean, by Anne Wilson, has a shelf-space of its own on the top left-hand side of the bookcase in my study. As light as balsa wood, it comes to little more than 100 chalky pages. The index takes up one page and the cover, royal blue, has an image from the Book of Hours in which a young knight reads the script on a stone, while the setting sun casts shadows behind him. I love the knight’s modesty, and the modesty of the book itself: the object in my house which takes up the least space carries the most weight. I would lend this book to no one; nor would I write in it or take it anywhere near hot water. Traditional Romance and Tale taught me how to read – not in the sense of taking me through the alphabet, but of showing me what a strange and mysterious thing reading is, how the part of the mind that absorbs itself in the structure and pattern of stories is at the same time primitive and supremely intelligent.

Anne Wilson begins with a question: why didn’t the Sleeping Beauty’s parents put a note in their diaries, to remind them that on her fifteenth birthday she would be pricked by a needle? What on earth were they doing, letting her wander around by herself on that day of all days? Wilson’s thesis is this: many of the indestructible stories we live amongst – fairytales, folk tales, medieval romances, the Odyssey, Jane Eyre – don’t make sense: ‘the thinking in them is not predominantly the kind of thinking which we bring to everyday affairs’. Their thinking is closer to that of dreams, and if we search in these texts for rational meanings ‘the answers to our questions will be somewhat like the answers given to Macbeth

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About the contributor

Frances Wilson is a critic and biographer. Guilty Thing: An Inner Life of Thomas De Quincey will be published by Bloomsbury later this year.

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