Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Sense of Place

Regardless of whether a book has its own vividly evoked sense of place, it also, for me, has a second sense of place--the place (and time) in which I read it.  Some books are so strongly associated in my mind with where and when I read them, that even seeing them on the shelf puts me right back into that time/place.  These books pull at me with two--what?--layers? of memory. Their own setting, and the setting in which I experienced them.

I first read Suite Francaise while staying with relatives in San Diego one August.  It was (no surprise) lovely weather there, fresh and breezy.  As I live on the Gulf Coast and was thus escaping 100+ degree temperatures, and home and school responsibilities, I felt that I was in paradise.  So as I sat under a shady green arbor with my feet up, Irene Nemirovsky's sympathetic and graceful language conjured mothers and fathers, happy and unhappy wives, young women in love.  It is a story of refugees and war, but what I remember of it is family and romantic relationships, some tranquil, some stressful, and calm, loving people.  And the cool, green, relaxation of my setting.  Would I have experienced the book differently in a different setting?  Remembered it more as a war story?  I don't know, but each time I read another of Nemirovsky's books, that calm, breezy relaxation steals into it.

Here's a more counterintuitive example.  Dracula and The Road to Wigan Pier, read on a visit to Puget Sound.  A horror story and Orwell's expose of poverty among English coal miners.  Not generally considered vacation reading.  But I read the Orwell each morning as I sat with my tea after breakfast facing the water--and almost no physical sight has ever been as calming to me as that gray, pearly, shimmering water stretching away to nothingness in the mist.  I tell you I fairly loved those coal miners.  Evenings, then, were for Dracula.  Our routine had been to spend the days walking in the mountains, and come home for dinner in our rented cottage.  After dinner, we'd sit around the fire, watching TV, playing board games, or reading (me).  Nicely tired after a day outdoors and ready to be gently creeped out, I spent an hour or so with Dracula listening to the fire crackle and the cottage floors creak, and the kids not fight because they were also too tired.  Bliss.  Dracula is now an evocation of cozy contentment. 

This is not just a vacation phenomenon.  Agatha Christie and Mary Stewart are forever linked in my mind to the house I grew up in--the front porch swing and my bedroom--and adolescent angst and daydreams of my future.  I would read and reread those two authors;  I can practically recite their books.  If I crack open a Mary Stewart now (and I still have all of them), I can taste the iced tea we drank at home, feel the vinyl of the porch swing cushions, wonder all over again if I were like the heroine, and would I ever see Europe, and who my husband would be. Exotic French and Greek and middle eastern settings, and my front porch, somehow always overlaid with each other now.

There are, of course, plenty of books that don't have any such associations with where and when I read them, but so many do that I wonder if this is a universal experience, or just a weirdness of mine.  I'd love to hear your "sense of place" stories--please share!


  1. This is quite true of books I read in my youth but not so much now. I can still vividly remember my first reading of Fellowship of the Rings or a Wrinkle in Time. I don't know why place doesn't stay with me as much now, but there it is.

    (coming over from WTM)

  2. Maybe because you're busier now, lol.