Old bookshops and the Christmas of 1942

Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-P.B Shelley, Ozymandias

My whole life, I have struggled to articulate what poetry means to me. I think my friend Andrea said it best in grade 8 when our class was asked to define poetry. She said, “It means something different to every one. No one could ever see it the same.”

Today, in an old second-hand bookshop up in the hinterlands where the shop-owner refused to return my hello or make eye contact throughout the duration of my visit; where volume after volume of Shakespeare was misplaced among Eliot and Dryden all within one overwhelming section that failed to distinguish poetry from plays from English literature; where contemporary books with un-cracked spines stood stiff on the shelf, where they would remain for the next 50 years because despite the pile of $1.50 guitar magazines, it was clear that the people who frequented this store were only looking for the classics…  I lifted a collection of Shelley’s poetical works and opened to cover to reveal this note:


Now it was weird for me to have found it among the unorganised clutter and weirder still that I hadn’t walked out after deciding I didn’t like the shop owner based on his initial quietness alone- but for some reason, I was drawn to that bookshelf in the corner of the room and how glad I am for it.

Whenever I read or study classic poetry or literature, I always feel so far removed and until today, I attributed that to nothing more than distance and time; an assumption that I could not possibly understand what life was like “back then.”

But today, in that bookshop, I imagined for a moment what the Christmas of 1942 would have been like for this unknown man during World War ii, and I realised the solidarity and inspiration he likely sought in the pages of Shelley’s book were somewhat like my own– somewhat like anyone who has ever picked up a poem in hopes of bringing light to darker days.

Despite what’s going on in the world around us and whether it’s 1942 or 2014, poetry remains a place for escapism, enlightenment and courage where we are free to wander and dream among the pages. And while It might mean something different to each of us, it’s home to us all.

I spent the rest of the day thinking about Christmas 72 years ago and wondering if the shop-owner knew he had books on his shelves that were once wrapped under trees; books that saw wars and revolutions and life and death pass them by.

If he did, it’s no wonder he kept so quiet.

Christmas 2014.


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