I’ve always had trouble with the phrase ‘of all time’, especially considering books or movies. But this book is most definitely, one of my my most favorite books ‘of all time’. It was part of the reading list of my one of classes at school. For the life of me, I can’t remember which class it was, but it was definitely around grade 8-10. I must have read it over a few hundred times in those years. This is quite possibly one of the first books I’ve ever serial-read. The same copy that’s in the photo. The plastic cover has shrunk through the many summers and cover doesn’t really close, I’ve labelled the cover, my name’s on the inside (in a shameful green glitter pen), but that’s it. There’s no marginalia to indicate what I had felt about it when I was 13. I read it over and over and over and over. I’d begin it again as soon as I finished it. I’d read it alternating with all the new books that formed my ‘Summer Reading Stash’. You get the picture. The only other book from that time that I read multiple times was Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’. In the past few years, the only books I’ve read with a similar obsession have been Stephen King’s books (The Stand, The Tommyknockers and Needful Things are my favorite), and the Dune books. ALL of them. Even the sequels and prequels. I love them to bits.
The book popped into my head suddenly as I lay in the warm, pink gloom of my room (my room at home had red blinds and white walls. The sun has bleached the blinds over the years, and now everything in the room seems drenched in pink during the day). I was reading Haruki Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood‘ (am on a Murakami roll these days and I suspect I’ll have to add his books to the ‘read obsessively’ list), and the protagonist had been reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ (his very own ‘My Family and Other Animals’) again and I thought about my favorite books over the years and this happened. I was in the middle of my first fast of the month and was incredibly lethargic. I still rolled out of bed and spent a good 20 minutes searching for the book. I had the niggling fear that I’d given it away with my textbooks of the time (there was a great ‘textbook purge’ last year at my house). And Lo, and Behold, I found it.
This book has a special place with me. This book is the reason my obsession with wildlife, environment and insects was magnified. I wanted to be Gerald Durrell. I felt incredible jealousy that he got to do all these things. Because of this book, I had my first caterpillar pet. Because of this, I had begged and pleaded for a microscope for my 15th birthday. I had a sample collection kit, jealously saved matchboxes for beetles, a fancy magnifying glass and turtles. I wanted to walk along the same paths that he did and see if I saw things the same way. I wanted a teacher like Theodore. Now I want a friend like him. Spiro was brilliant. I know someone like him! But then again, I’m sure everyone does.
Looking back on it now, I still love the same bits. I’m a little more focused on the ‘geography’, but the parts that fascinated me then, still fascinate me now. I love the maps drawn with George – this is how geography should be taught. I still want to visit these places and see if I can feel something. As much as I want to travel with people, I feel like this is one place I’d like to go by myself. I have a terrible fear that it would mean nothing. I don’t expect it to look the same obviously. The richness of that time has surely been consumed by urbanity. But the space is the same. The land must remember. In any case, I remember. I remember how I felt when I read this the first time, the memory of ‘wait…this is perfect’. I’m going to read it again today, in the same room, in the same summer heat, but with a slightly different me. I’ll read more into things, know more about the insects he talks about, be done with it a lot faster, be sadder than before at finishing it.
The first thing that came to mind when the book came to mind, though, is a breakfast scene. It comes up in Chapter 3: The Rose-Beetle Man, after the family has moved in to the Strawberry Pink Villa. Breakfast is a leisurely affair, everyone eating silently, until they slowly wake up completely and then begin speaking. All except for Gerald, who’s main concern was to eat and depart as quickly as possible. This bit is why I love it:
‘Eat it slowly, dear,’ Mother would murmur; ‘there’s no hurry.’
No hurry? With Roger waiting at the garden gate, an alert black shape, watching for me with eager brown eyes? No hurry, with the first sleepy cicadas starting to fiddle experimentally among the olives? No hurry, with the island waiting, morning cool, bright as a star, to be explored?
Here, he would slow his eating, until attention was diverted away, and then rush again. But this description is one reason I am passionate about paths. Roger, the cicadas, the waiting island, are what awaits at the end of the path. The one that begins from the breakfast table with drowsy family members. This description is his ‘reason’. The reason for waking up, speeding through food.
Everyone should have an island, a Roger with a ridiculous, irresistible grin, and the potential for exploration. Everyone should have books that need to be read over and over again. A reminder and pushy nudge towards ‘this is what you want to be’. A reminder of spaces and people imagined and visualized until they are burnt into your brain.