My book of books

19 August 2020 - 12:34 By SHIRLEY FAIRALL
'A Book of Ruth' inspired Shirley Fairall to write, and remains the book she'll save in a fire.
'A Book of Ruth' inspired Shirley Fairall to write, and remains the book she'll save in a fire.
Image: Supplied

When I was a teenager, I fell in love with a novel titled A Book of Ruth by an American writer, Syrell Rogovin Leahy. Over the years I read it a few times, and then somewhere along the way I lost it, inevitable given the peripatetic lifestyle of my 30s and 40s.

Written in the 1970s and set in Boston and New York, it was an unheralded little book, the story of a forbidden romance between Ruth Gold, a Jewish schoolteacher, and Jim Kendall, a Catholic priest.

To be honest, I was a little embarrassed by my devotion to this book, given that no-one I knew had ever heard of it, much less read it. Poorly educated, I had at least always been exposed to books. Our big weekly outing was the library on Friday evening and we were allowed — encouraged even — to read anything. This ranged from the comics we got at the local book exchange to the books on my parents’ shelves, which included writers like Steinbeck, Cronin, Godden, Hemingway, Uris, Buck and Michener, plus a lot of classical poetry.

Reading was my education and I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, so when I started earning my own money I haunted second-hand book shops for the literature that hadn’t featured in my life but that I knew was important. These were the years of Conrad, Eliot, Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald, Dickens, Bronte, Tolstoy, Austen, Proust, Woolf and also, inevitably, of Orwell, Huxley, Rand, Marquez, Irving, Vonnegut, Murdoch, Faulkner, Potok and on and on.  

I inhaled books, learning what constituted good writing and, equally important, what didn’t. But in a fire I wouldn’t have reached for any of the worthies on my way out. No, I would have grabbed A Book of Ruth by an author whose name would never be listed among great writers. I loved that book and mourned its loss. I thought of it often over the years and phrases from it would stray unbidden into my thoughts. I loved Leahy’s style of writing, her characters and her gift for dialogue.

When the internet became a thing, I used it to find several books I’d loved as a child and teenager, but A Book of Ruth eluded me. Then, on a whim, I looked for it again last week. There it was, available from a used bookseller, but the cost to ship it to SA from the US was way more than the cost of the book itself.

Before I clicked “spend” I impulsively posted a query about it to my source of endless book joy, a Facebook page called The Good Book Appreciation Society. Started by the writer Paige Nick, it has 12,000+ members and is where I get most of my book reviews, all served with a hefty side of commentary and kindness by fellow bibliophiles. And what do you know, within a matter of days I was holding A Book of Ruth in my hands, having been told exactly where to find it by someone I don’t know but hugely appreciate.

Like meeting an ex-lover for whom you’ve continued to carry a torch, I suddenly caught myself feeling nervous. Was the attraction still there? Would we still laugh at the same things? Would we still like each other? Love each other?

I’ve always enjoyed the idea that when we reread a book and find new things in it, this is not a reflection of the book but of ourselves, our personal growth. But this didn’t happen when I braved my beloved Book of Ruth after our long separation. What happened instead was that I found everything I’d ever loved about the book still intact. Slightly discoloured and a little worn around the edges, it remained the same beautifully written, stylistically enviable great story, skilfully told by a writer at whose feet I would fall if I ever met her.

I found something else, too: the knowledge that, of all the books I’ve greedily consumed in my life, this is the one to savour, the one that has most informed my expectation of every book I open and, above all, my appreciation for writing style. This is the book that inspired me to write, that made me at once proud and diffident of wearing the moniker writer. And it remains the book I’ll grab on my way out if there’s a fire.

Fairall is a freelance writer and former contributor to Fairlady.