Thursday, December 12, 2013
Rediscovering lost books
It was an absorbing and addictive piece of research, which ultimately proved the power of visual memory over verbal memory. Solving the puzzle was fun. But one of the best aspects of the search was discovering a global community of readers engaged in similar searches, or helping one other to find half-remembered, beloved, lost books.
Here's how my search went: I decided to track down a children's book I'd never owned but always remembered, about an Indian boy from a poor family who wanted (funnily enough) to buy a beautiful, illustrated, hardcover book. My inaccurate memory told me that the boy was called Ramon and my two best guesses at the book's title were 'What now, Ramon?' and 'What next, Ramon?' I felt sure that the book was good enough to be mentioned somewhere on the web in the annals of children's literature, so I was surprised to turn up no records of it by searching these titles together with search words related to the era, plot and genre.
Getting a bit desperate, I typed in 'find old children's books' and immediately became entangled in a series of captivating websites dedicated to helping people find their lost books. At Old Children's Books you can post queries about half-remembered books and find links to other useful book-finding sites, such as Abe Books. At Loganberry Books' nostalgia section you can post your query on 'stump the bookseller' or browse the archives of solved mysteries and persistent stumpers. Forgetting my own search, I trawled through fascinating reminiscences of lost favourites about purple ponies, buffalo hunters, mice living in old shoes, and old men eating fish and chips. Surely I could answer some of these questions... after all, I've read a lot of books. Did I know the title of a book about men on a desert island with poisonous spiders? Or an architect called Kimberley? No, I didn't, but I'll definitely be going back to these sites regularly in the hope of solving a few stumpers in 2014.
And what of my own lost book? I was just about to post it on a forum when I made a last effort of memory and visualized the cover. A picture of a slim, elegant Indian boy holding a basket popped into my mind, clearly the work of illustrator Margery Gill. So I went to Google Images and looked up 'Margery Gill book covers' and there was the book: 'What then, Raman?' by Shirley L. Arora, with the illustration just as I'd seen it. A new search turned up plenty of entries, ranging from bloggers who remembered it as their favourite book, to a copy in a UK bookstore available for about $3 plus postage. It's now residing in my bookshelf - and what a pleasure that is.