In Which I Read the Book of Roberts
It has been a couple of days since I updated this blog on the volume picked up at The Paper Hound bookshop, recently. It seemed fitting that I ought to attempt to read The Book of Roberts.
Readers of the first part of this post will not be surprised, given my guess as to the dollar value of the book, that I was somewhat negatively disposed toward it from the perspective of the book’s perceived usefulness to my writing for VAIW.
But reading isn’t all about usefulness. In fact, I’d say that reading for pleasure doesn’t have much at all to do with utility. (Reading from textbooks, of course, is reading for utility, almost by definition. But I wouldn’t class textbook reading or any school-based “required reading” as being principally reading done for pleasure.)
How would I summarize my personal review of The Book of Roberts? This way: as with many books that have found a temporary home on my bookshelves, it was a surprise! A good surprise.
It was, as I’d guessed in the bookshop, a biography of a family with the surname Roberts who lived in ‘the sticks’ of the Atlantic region of Canada. But at the same time, it was about much more than that. It also served as an aide memoire for me, stimulating recollections of my growing-up years in rural (and semi-rural) Western Canada.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the book, I would say, is also one of its great virtues: the author’s reluctance to fill in the blanks for the reader as to pieces of assumed knowledge. One of these gaps between what the author knows and seems disinclined to spell out to readers pertains to the settings that change from chapter to chapter within this brief book. In an early chapter called “My Father”, the author refers to a place called Kingscroft as the setting where most events transpire. In the subsequent chapter we have apparently moved to a (neighbouring?) location to which he refers as the woods of ‘King’s College’. In yet another chapter called “Uncle Bliss”, we move through both space and time from what seems to be the author’s first home, Kingscroft, to New York City, and from the “present” (by which he seems to mean his youth) to “ten years later” (which I take to be when he was approaching adulthood).
So you can see from the preceding paragraph that if readers are going to get much from the book as a family history, they must either bring some knowledge of the Roberts clan and their environs to the venture of reading the book or else have a pretty good ‘imaginer’ on his or her shoulders!
As I said at the beginning of this mini-review, however, by the time I was nearing the conclusion of the book, I was thankful to Lloyd Roberts for approaching his subject in this way, with somewhat opaque references to settings. In this way, I think, he proved (to me, at least) to be successful in perhaps his more creative objective of transforming The Book of Roberts from a book about the Roberts family into a book that pertains to the reader’s growing-up experiences, too.
Herein lies the magical aspect of this little volume, in my opinion. The author was able to take his personal life experiences as a boy growing up in the Atlantic region of Canada (during its early years as a nation) and leave enough room for the readers (most of whom would be complete strangers to the writer and who most likely had very different growing up experiences) to enter into the author’s joy¹ with the book serving as a stimulant to the reader’s memories of childhood.
That, my friends, is some pretty skillful and truly creative writing!
The book is not consistently great, by any means. Indeed, it seems to trail off rather aimlessly near its end. The absence of an explicit setting at times does not lead one to cheer but to carp at the author for not yielding some vital details for understanding what is going on. And as a bio book of the Roberts’, it fails to deliver most of the facts sought by historians.
But, if I ever were to encounter the now-long-dead Lloyd Roberts, I’d thank him for stimulating, with The Book of Roberts, some forgotten recollections of my growing up years that brought a smile and, in a couple of cases, a blush to my now-adult face.
I will conclude by quoting from the beginning of Roberts’ first chapter, “Toys”. I think that this serves to sum up well what I have taken as the author’s principal purposes: not only to present his family to readers (albeit, somewhat amorphously), but also to present readers with a mirror of sorts with which they may also reflect on their own life experiences in those early, tender years of life:
Toys! Wipe the slate of your mind clean of grown-up facts and figures, shockingly commercial and calculating, and let the delicate traceries of first impressions slowly reappear. What do you see? First, the very first, a cluster of tiny green bells on a handle. The object is so bright that it seems to flood the room until you can see a big bed filled with children. It is evidently Christmas morning. . . You have had an excessive fondness for little painted bells ever since. (The Book of Roberts, p. 13)
Next time, we plan to move back from the realm of reviewing creative non-fiction to our original project of figuring out where The Book of Roberts and its inscribed ephemeron and assorted characters fit into the history of the place I now call home: Vancouver.
¹Joy is something quite different from happiness, in my view. Joy is not dependent on circumstances that are happy.