Talismans and spells

May 11, 2010


Grace and remembrance – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Books are not seldom talismans and spells…’
(William Cowper)

This magical line expresses an idea familiar to every reader; the book as talisman. This evocative word becomes even more appropriate on close acquaintance. It’s defined by various dictionaries as ‘an object supposed to be imbued with magical powers, an amulet, charm, hence any object held to be endowed with magic virtue… derived from the Greek rite, consecrated object… anything that acts as a charm, or by which extraordinary results are achieved.’ These attractive descriptions are outdone by an encyclopedia which adds ‘esp. an inscribed ring or stone capable of averting evil or bringing good luck’.

It doesn’t take any great leap of the imagination to acknowledge that there are times when a book can be a certain averter of evil, bringer of health or good luck, means whereby extraordinary results are achieved. The intense concentration of imagination, thought, intellectual communication, creativity and responsiveness which goes to create the miracle-working thing results in an object consecrated by both the writer’s and reader’s act – the rite of reading. It blesseth her that gives and her that takes.

As for a ‘spell’ – here the dictionary again breaks into poetry; ‘a form of words used as a magical charm or incantation, from OE tale or narrative… a set of words, a formula or verse, supposed to possess occult or magic powers, a charm or incantation… an occult or mysterious power or influence’. The shortest entry merely reads ‘enchantment’.

That the physical book is an object which carries within it metaphysical powers seems a truth universally acknowledged; the only question is, which book? At different times of life, in different circumstances, various books fulfil the talismanic purpose, though perhaps some remain constant always. What seemed essential when in the VIth Form (for me, Brideshead Revisited), is probably a rare read later, when it’s The Waves (or whatever) which seems to confer a blessing merely by existing. But Emma casts her spell always.

But beyond that, which copy? For some the battered paperback long-carried in the pocket is imbued with power by the number of times it’s been read; others prefer the letterpress edition carefully preserved in its slipcase, rarely read but much admired. Beloved old books read to rags, or new issues in fresh-printed mint condition, they fulfil the talismanic purpose – so long as they are not (in the words of Cowper’s younger admirer Charles Lamb) ‘Things in books’ clothing’.

Impossible to resist quoting Virginia Woolf’s finale from How Should One Read a Book?:

‘I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’

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