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Literary Conversations

What Book Would You Save?

by Jessica Harrington

What I would grab if my house was burning to the ground: My three dogs, my mother’s mason jar and gold bell necklace, my great grandmother’s rosary and my favorite childhood book Fantasy Animals by Cathee Van Rossem St. Clair.

While spending time at Brain Pickings last night, I came across a review by Maria Popova on a book titled The Burning House: What would you take? by Foster Huntington. Huntington asked himself this question: What would you grab as you fled your burning home? He made a pile of what he would grab and photographed it. He then asked friends to do the same and started a blog. Then he asked bloggers the same question and had people submit pictures and descriptions. Foster wanted a wider perspective though, not just blogger types, so he set out on a road trip to find persons from all walks of life to answer his simple question. This Tumblr blog turned book is an amazing collection of what objects, rational and sentimental, we identify ourselves with.

While looking through photos from the book, I noticed that almost every person had included a book, note, or journal. I started to think about what I would grab (my dogs, my mother’s antique mason jar, my great grandmother’s rosary) and wondered if a book would make my list, and one did- Fantasy Animals by Cathee Van Rossem St. Clair.  Now it is not an American Classic or special edition, it is a simple book of illustrations and poem like descriptions of fantasy animals. There is a dedication from the people who gave it to me on the inner front cover that reads: For Jessica Xmas ’90 From Virginia and Ed. I don’t remember who Virginia and Ed are; I don’t remember receiving the book as a gift on that Christmas morning in 1990. I do, however, remember spending countless hours at my desk as a child trying to draw the fantasy animals, trying to make up new poems for them, and dreaming of finding these magical creatures in far off lands one day. It is the only book from my childhood that I still have and I still flip through it regularly. It reminds me of a more innocent time, when anything was possible. When I had an amazing imagination, a drive for discovery, and was still naive enough to think the only evil in the world was the likes of Dr. Claw, Inspector Gadget’s arch nemesis.

Books are more than the words written between the covers, they are outlets of who we once were, who we are, or what we wish to become. They inspire us and remind us of what is important. Books are replaceable (for the most part) but the copy you have carried around with you for twenty-two years; the book that has kept you company; the book that has been worn, ripped, and written in during your journey together, is not. With that, I will leave you with a question- if your house was burning to the ground, would you grab a book? Which one and why?

About The Haberdasher

Created by writers for writers, The Haberdasher, or le Hab, is your Peddler of Literary Art for Northern California and beyond. In addition to writing tips and literary debates, we also feature critical reviews and author interviews.


5 thoughts on “What Book Would You Save?

  1. Not connected to a fire, but this piece from the CS Monitor also talks about the one book that author Jeff Shaffer can’t let go: Shaffer writes, “I’ve held onto books that are connected to special moments in my life and books that my parents read when they were young, all of them infused with memories that resonate every time I flip through the pages. Care must be taken, however, not to get trapped in the past.” As we move farther away from being a book culture, and further into being a digital culture, I find I’m having more difficulty letting books go, especially those I like to pull down and re-read. While I enjoy the adventure of a new book, sometimes the best medicine is a vacation in a favorite world with characters who feel like friends, and it’s comforting to have that close at hand.

    Posted by Ki Koenig (@kikoenig) | July 23, 2012, 6:35 pm
  2. I would most definitely try to save my laptop and some presents that are significant to me… but I’m not sure which book I would try to save. I have so many that it’s difficult to just pick one and go. I think in the panic I may just pick a few to read until I start building my collection again.

    Posted by Zen | July 23, 2012, 8:20 pm
    • The AV Club asked musicians whether they’d rather never hear music again or only hear one song for the rest of their lives. Either of those choices might be even worse than only being allowed to save a single book, but the lack of both books and music would definitely be cause for panic.

      Posted by The Haberdasher | July 24, 2012, 3:02 am
  3. I stumbled upon this blog while searching sites for writers — what a surprise when I read the name of the book you’d save.

    When I wrote and illustrated Fantasy Animals in 1980, I never in my wildest dreams thought this little book would have a shelf life 32 years later. I loved every moment creating those poems and drawings. I remember holing up in my studio, waiting for the UPS driver to arrive with reams of illustration board — even shoveling a path to make it easier for him to load them into my snowed-in cabin. Every day was like Christmas as I escaped to my place by the fire, dipped pen into ink, and followed the Winged Lion as my guide. Innocence, indeed.

    Thank you so much for making my day.

    Posted by Cathee vanRossem-St.Clair | October 5, 2012, 4:30 am
    • Wow, I am at a loss for words. I cannot believe you stumbled upon my post! Your book has been by my side since I was a small child, about four. I would spend hours tracing your illustrations and fantasizing about a land in which I could meet these creatures. To this day I refer back to it when I need inspiration or a pick me up. You are an amazing artists and I thank you for giving your gift to the world. It truly is an honor to “talk” with you, you had a huge impact on my childhood.

      -Jessica Harrington

      Posted by The Haberdasher | October 5, 2012, 6:39 pm

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