Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about books that—for want of a better term—changed my reading DNA as a child and adolescent. Russell Hoban’s recent death brought me back to The Mouse and His Child and what it taught me about tragedy in a narrative and how to deal with it. And Charles Shields’ new biography of Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes, got me thinking about Vonnegut and what a bridge he was, for me, between the fantasy and science fiction I loved in my earliest teens and the adult reading I moved on to after my first year of high school (a more extensive review of Shields’ book is forthcoming).
It’s not entirely accurate to say that this time of year in particular reminds me of The Dark Is Rising, because Susan Cooper’s wonderfully fantastic midwinter tale is never too far from the surface. I read at just the right age, at the right time and place—someone, I don’t remember who, gave it to me for Christmas when I was 10 or 11—for it to be hardwired into my brain forever. Certain scenes are as vivid as anything that actually happened to me in my childhood. And who’s to say that, the way we read as children, books don’t happen to us? But Cooper’s sensibility is especially suited for these short, dark days, and the book’s images tend to play in my head when evening falls so early and it feels like late afternoon should bring dinner and bed, thick velvet curtains, strange symbols forged in iron, and firelight. A friend turned me onto this poem of Susan Cooper’s today, and I pass it along, in turn:
The Shortest Day
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
(Photo is “Winter Evening,” from neilschelly’s Flickr photostream.)