A Christmas Fireside Read

There’s still something magical about turning off technology over Christmas and spending time in a comfy chair with a real book watching a real fire while the scent of pine from a real Christmas tree mingles with the smell of hot chocolate in a big, red mug. If it also happens to be snowing outside and you can watch the fluffy flakes fall thickly on the garden, that’s an added bonus.

Christmas fireplace

Snugly cocooned in your own winter wonderland, the toughest chore you should need to do is ask yourself one question; what shall I read? Well, the purpose of this pre-yule article is to give you time to (a) make some decisions and (b) actually buy some real books. Now for those of you who believe that downloading is the cheapest and best way to go, I urge you to check out the “alternative formats” next time you go to the Kindle or Nook stores, because you not infrequently find that you can buy physical books for significantly less than the electronic version. Yes, that’s less as in “it’s cheaper.” And the best bargains of all are to go for the combination of “hard cover” in “very good” condition.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a few concrete examples from some of my last Amazon purchases:

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin
Kindle Price – $9.99: Hardcover (Used-Very Good) – $8.10 inc. shipping.

Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson
Kindle Price – $9.99: Hardcover (Used-Very Good) – $5.46 inc. shipping.

Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture by Erez Aiden
Kindle Price – $9.99: Hardcover (Brand New) – $4.61 inc. shipping.

Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity by Gary Cross
Kindle Price – $14.49: Hardcover (Used-Very Good) – $4.12 inc. shipping.

It doesn’t take a lot of math skills to realize that you can actually save money while building up your personal library, and you also get that unique and special pleasure of having books arrive in parcels that you can’t wait to tear open and fondle lovingly while muttering, “My precious, my precious!”

So given that you might now be persuaded to try using some real books instead of their digital equivalents, here’s my recommendation for a delightful, entertaining, and stress-relieving Christmas read.

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar

Fairy tales are not, and never have been, just for children. Classic fairy tales are called “classic” because they have a timeless appeal that transcends age. Sure, they can fulfill a critical role in the psychological development of wee ones [1] but for grown-ups they can be just as wondrous and enlightening.

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales cover

There are 26 tales in all, which include the ever-so-familiar Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Emperor’s New Clothes, and the less familiar The Juniper Tree, Vasilisa the Fair, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon. For many people, their experience of some of these fairy tales is via the Disneyfied versions, which are often bowdlerized [2] to avoid some of the scarier or darker elements of the original tales, so reading the originals can be eye-opening. For example, the cuddly, song-filled world of Ariel, The Little Mermaid, is a little less sunny in the original story, with the mermaid (who is simply called “the little mermaid” because she’s the youngest and littlest) having to endure extreme pain and suffering. The sea witch (also unnamed) doesn’t just cast a spell to make her unable to speak but cuts out her tongue![3] And the sea witch also tells her that once she has legs;

…every step taken will make you feel as if you were treading on a sharp knife, enough to make you feet bleed.

And bleed they do! Yet it’s not enough that she spends her time trying to woo the prince while suffering for the lack of the availability of a skilled podiatrist, but ultimately he dumps her for some other girl and she has to spend 300 years doing good deeds in order to gain something she has never had – a soul.

The Little Mermaid Meets the Prince

The Prince Asked Who She Was: Edmund Dulac

Another reason to buy the physical book and not the electronic version is that the stories are all illustrated by images from a number of noted children’s illustrators. These include Arthur Rackham, Gustave Dore, Edmund Dulac, and Kay Nielsen [4]. Although they are smaller than one would prefer, the pictures alone are still worth the price of admission, and there’s no shame in taking pleasure in “picture books” when the artistry is as splendid as the ones in this book [5].

So treat yourself to some me-time this Christmas and snuggle up with a collection of fairy tales that will remind you all over again of what it’s like to be young and full of wonder.

Notes
[1] If you’re looking to read more than one book over the holidays, or you want to work out which to read after them, you’re in for a Freudian treat if you get hold of a copy of The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim. It is unashamedly psychoanalytic in its outlook but even if you’re not a fan of Sigmund and the Analysts, the writing is fluid, the arguments persuasive, and you’ll come away with a perspective on fairy stories that you probably never thought of. It’s on my personal list of “books to re-read” since my first experience in 1978; yes, it’s that good.

[2] The word bowdlerize is an example of an eponym – a word taken from the name of a person, place, or thing. In this case, the person was the Rev. Thomas Bowdler whose singular claim to fame was to produce a version of Shakespeare’s works with all the naughty bits taken out. So, in Romeo & Juliet, the sentence “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” was altered to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon.” The good reverend wanted neither ladies nor children to be exposed to any hands on pricks.

[3] In her annotations, Tater makes reference here to the much older tale of Tereus and Philomela that also includes the cutting out of a tongue. However, in the case of Philomela, it’s much more gruesome and shocking, and if you ever wanted to convince people that “the Classics” can be as raunchy, racy, and downright gory as any modern R-rated horror movie, have them pick up a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I suspect Brett Easton Ellis is a big fan. Of all the translation of Metamorphoses, the one I believe is most generally accessible is the version by Horace Gregory. My original copy figuratively traveled the world with me and is now so dogged-eared, beaten up, and full of scribbled notes that I had to buy a new one. In fact, Travels With Ovid is the title of a book I’d love to write!  Charles Martin’s version is next on my list, followed by Allen Mandelbaum then Stanley Lombardo.

[4] The links provided here are to one of my all-time favorite websites, Art Passions. You can spend far too much time here exploring all the works by the many artists featured, but it’s time well spent for lovers of visual imagery and

[5] Only last year I bought a copy of The Golden Book of Fairy Tales purely for the illustrations by Adrienne Segur (1901-1981), who illustrated hundreds of children’s stories, and who can best be appreciated if I send you to a page where you’ll find lots of her pictures. Adrienne Segur illustrations. You have my permission to leave this page in favor of those pictures – I guarantee it’s a pleasurable excursion.

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2 responses to “A Christmas Fireside Read

  1. WOW! I love this post! Nothing like the smell of old paper!

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