In honour of its 100th anniversary, the Ottawa Public Library is running a contest to determine “Ottawa’s 100 favourite books.” Anyone with an Ottawa library card can add books to the “eligibility list” and gets three votes. For the record, the current top five books are:
1. Pride and Prejudice
2. Anne of Green Gables
(Lucy Maude Montgomery)
3. Lord of the Rings
4. A Fine Balance
5. The Outsider
, a.k.a. The Stranger (Albert Camus)
(I’ve read three of them, own one but haven’t read it, and never heard of the other before today. Not a difficult puzzle, but I’ll let you work out which is which anyway.)
I haven’t participated in the contest yet – though I intend to do so – partly because I’ve been more than a little busy lately but also because I simply can’t decide how to vote.
First of all, choosing three-and-only-three favourite books is a virtually impossible task for any book lover. I’m sure most of you know exactly what I mean, so nuff-said about that.
Second, how do you define “favourite?” Is it the best-written books you’ve ever read? The books that you’ve found the most moving? The books that have changed the way you think about – or engage with – the world … or yourself? The books that have had the most impact on the world at large? The most beautiful books? The most appealing books? The books you’ve had the most fun reading? The books you’ve found the most useful? The books you rely on to get you through hard times? The books that give you the most pleasure?
For each of these interpretations, I’d come up with a different list – and so, most likely, would you. So, in the absence of further information, I’ve decided that “favourite” means “the books you go back to year after year because you want to experience them again.” These are the books that – for whatever reason – comfort and entertain, that satisfy, that resonate
. They are the books we love to pieces (literally, at times), and the ones we feel the need to re-read once or twice a year “just because.” They are our beloved friends, and we are protective of them.
[Aside] Sometimes, I even decide whether someone is worth getting to know based on their opinion of a treasured book or author. After all, how could I be truly compatible with someone who just doesn’t “get” Jane Austen. Or, conversely, someone who adores Ernest Hemmingway. I could respect and admire such a person (just as I respect and admire Hemmingway’s skill) – and we could even become quite friendly – but I doubt we would ever be “kindred spirits,” to borrow a phrase from one of Ottawa’s top five favourite books. (Of course, I’m perfectly prepared to revise this opinion should evidence suggest otherwise ….) [Back on track]
So … what, then, are my top three favourite books of all time? I still can’t decide, but this one would definitely make my top 100, anyhow:The Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories (Joyce Lankester Brisley)
Some of my earliest, and fondest, memories of reading are attached to a skinny boxed set of the four Milly-Molly-Mandy books – originally published in the late 1920s / early 1930s. The box and books, for those who are interested in this kind of thing, were kelly green, with coloured line drawings of Milly-Molly-Mandy in her pink and white striped dress and red lettering.
I was entranced – there’s really no other word to describe it – by these short stories describing the activities of a little English girl with a great big name. Milly-Molly-Mandy lived with Grandpa and Grandma and Father and Mother and Uncle and Aunty in the little white house in The Village (no … NOT the same one as in The Prisoner). Her most frequent companions wre Billy Blunt, Little Friend Susan and Toby the Dog.
Now, I must admit Milly-Molly-Mandy didn’t lead a very exciting life – some of the story titles are “Milly-Molly-Mandy Goes Errands,” “Milly-Molly-Mandy Sees a Film” “Milly-Molly-Mandy Has Her Photo Taken” and so on. So, why did these books appeal to me so much that I can still remember the plot of almost every story?
I think the first reason is that she looked quite a lot like me … or I looked like her, one of the two. In Joyce Lankester Brisley’s drawings, I could literally see myself doing all the things Milly-Molly-Mandy did.
Second, the end-pages of each book had a map of The Village, so I had a proper mental picture of where every story took place. That just made the stories more “real” to me, somehow, than books that didn’t have a map. It was as though Milly-Molly-Mandy, her family, her friends and the little village were actually out there somewhere.
Third, her life was just far-enough removed from my own world to seem … well … both foreign and cozily familiar at the same time. I was always learning something new and mysterious from these stories (such as, what is a “mustard and cress” sandwich, or how to make a tea-cosy). And I remember demanding my mother make me “potato lids” for supper after reading about Milly-Molly-Mandy and Little Friend Susan eating them by the fire in “Milly-Molly-Mandy Enjoys a Visit.” [FYI - To make a “potato lid” simply cut the top off a well-baked potato, scoop out the middle, mash with plenty of salt, pepper and butter, return to the potato, put the “lid” back on and serve. I still eat them now and again. Yummm!]
Fourth, she didn’t scare me. I really LIKED Milly-Molly-Mandy. I could imagine myself playing with her – going blackberrying or learning to make paper dolls or going on a picnic. I loved the fact she worked so hard to win first prize at the village party because she desperately wanted to take home the stuffed white rabbit with one lopsided eye. When it turns out that the rabbit is really the “booby prize” and the real first prize is a beautiful blonde doll with curly hair and eyes that open and close she is stunned. (Teacher graciously agrees to let the two winners exchange their prizes, so Milly-Molly-Mandy gets her rabbit after all.)
And finally, most of the stories had a gentle humour that still appeals to me today. In “Milly-Molly-Mandy Gets a Surprise,” she becomes quite cross when the family begins decorating the attic “so the apples have somewhere cheerful to stay over the winter.” Of course the attic is being turned into a room for Milly-Molly-Mandy herself. Or when she imagines her “Great Aunt” as being some kind of giant because she’s … well … not just a regular Aunty.
…. You know, I haven’t read these stories since I was a kid, and they still make me smile. Maybe when I go home tonight I’ll start digging through the boxes of kids books in the basement. It feels like its time to look up an old friend.