A few years ago a friend of a friend was moving, and had some boxes set aside for donations. Like a vulture, I started to circle the boxes, looking for scraps: one man’s trash being another’s treasure. Among some fantasy paperbacks and old textbooks, I found a hard cover edition of the Stories from the Arabian Nights. As a kid, my mother would read fantastic tales to me from the Arabian Nights, of thieves, genies, and “musulmans.” Flipping through the book, my excitement only grew. This edition included dozens of beautiful colour-plate illustrations by Edmund Dulac. The fantastic scenes of my childhood imagination, in vibrant colour.
Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), a French illustrator, worked during the “Golden era of book illustration” of the early twentieth-century. During his long career, Dulac contributed illustrations to over 800 books. His illustrations brought to life fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson, the plays of Shakespeare, and the poems of Edgar Alan Poe. The book I had found was a reprint of the 1907 Stories from the Arabian Nights. And though it was a reprint, it was obviously printed with an understanding of the illustrations’ powerful effect on the narrative.
My friend’s friend was happy to give me the book, seeing as he was going to donate it anyway, and I looked eager to have it. So I brought the book home, with a plan to eventually have the colour-plates framed. The book sat there for a couple of years, waiting for me to get around to cutting out the plates.
A few weeks ago I was going through my books, and ended up looking through the Arabian Nights. On the front cover, written neatly in ball-point pen, was a name I’d never noticed. And since I hadn’t noticed the name, I hadn’t recognized it either. It turns out the book belonged to another of my friend’s fiancé. The next time I saw my friend’s fiancé I asked her about the book. Well, it turned out she had been given the book by her grandfather, and it was one of the few things she had from him. Years ago she lent the book to the person who gave it to me. And since it had been years since she had heard from him, she had guessed the book lost for good. But writing her name on the front cover, the thing so many of us do with our books, helped it come back to her.
It’s hard to describe the emotional connection people have to books. I wish I were a more emphatic writer, so I could express the joy and gratitude my friend’s fiancé showed when I handed her the book–all the more poignant once she knew what I had planned for it. Books are mnemonic. Especially books from our childhood. They remind us of the joy of sharing the imaginary space of a story, with our parents, siblings, relatives, and friends. Books we’ve loved connect us to our past. I was so glad to have reconnected my friend’s fiancé with her book, and her memories.