What we inherit when we inherit books

Having a family funeral during lockdown was difficult. But going through my grandmother's bookshelf inspired me to approach tough times like she would.

Roasting Tin Lads
Mike Ellis for Penguin

It was strange, standing outside the church after my grandmother’s funeral, not being able to hug or shake hands with anyone. It was the day the national lockdown was announced, and what should have been a full house of mourners was reduced to a handful of her surviving friends all spaced apart on the pews. As they filed out in the morning sunlight we had to thank them with nods and smiles from the opposite side of a path, to try and make sure they didn’t accidentally end up in there next.

It would have been a full house, too. The small stone building with its modest stained glass window was where my grandmother had been christened almost 90 years earlier. It’s where she first glimpsed Gerald, the altar boy who would become her husband of 60 years. It’s where she had her two sons baptized, as well as her grandchildren. It where she said goodbye to my granddad, and where we said goodbye to her.

Perhaps more importantly, if you asked Rose herself, it’s where she went every single Sunday to pray, and where she volunteered over several decades. An entire life, played out inside a single building in a town in East Yorkshire. What struck me as a kind of smallness when I was growing up I now realised was the opposite: a largeness, and a depth of connection with a place I would never understand.

'There was a bookshelf in the corner that had fascinated me right back to my earliest memories.'

It wasn’t the turnout she deserved, but we all agreed it was a good time to go. In the weeks that followed, the full extent of the horrors taking place in Britain’s care homes, where an estimated third of the total deaths caused by the pandemic have taken place, began to reveal itself. She died on the cusp of the coronavirus crisis without ever knowing its name, while we could still get inside to hold her hand. 

Recently, I’ve found myself walking around a cemetery around the corner from my house. It is one of the larger and leafier ones in North London. Usually they are places I avoid, but during lockdown it’s become a sanctuary, a place to go to find a bit of time and space. Rather than an uncomfortable reminder of death, the gravestones have strangely become a source of comfort. I like to think I can feel the spirit of those in ground cheering us on, telling us to keep going. There is a small area devoted to the lives lost in World War II and seeing the white graves makes me stand up a little taller, gain some perspective on the comparatively meagre sacrifices I’m being asked to make.

When we cleared out her house a few years ago, after it became clear my grandmother wasn’t strong enough to carry on living there on her own, I sat in the attic bedroom that had been my father’s growing up and then mine, every summer when I would visit. There was a bookshelf in the corner that had fascinated me right back to my earliest memories. On the top were treasures from the trips my grandmother had taken late in her life, to Europe and South America and Australia (in her sixties, she bought a round the world plane ticket); small statues of birds and kangaroos and other trinkets.

But what I remembered most vividly were the books. Old Ian Fleming novels she’d bought for my father and uncle, small leather editions of poetry she loved, the scripts from the local am-dram productions she starred in with her parts underlined in pencil – the great pride of her younger years which she talked about right until the very end. And most of all, dozens of illustrated, pocket-sized guides to nature: The Observer's Book of Birds, A Guide to Spotting Wild Animals in Britain, Wild Flowers of the Wayside and Woodland. I sat crossed legged on the floor, just like I did countless times as a child looking for something to read, and cried as I put them into a box to take home.

'They belonged to a different age, but they described perfectly the new world I was trying to open up for myself'

Like many of us, I’ve been trying during lockdown to connect more meaningfully with the natural world now time has slowed down. It was as I Googled ‘how to identify birds’ that I remembered about my grandmother’s books sat untouched in the spare room.

In them was everything I needed to start my new hobby. Despite being 40, 50 years old, they were in good condition (‘look after things properly’ was one of her mantras), sturdy and compact and full of beautiful paintings of the wrens and robins and sparrows, the oaks and willows and birches I hoped to spot. The books belonged to a different age, but they described perfectly the new world I was trying to open up for myself. I headed back out, armed with them and a pair of binoculars, and began to see that actually, the cemetery was a place full of life. You need only to be still for a moment, and look up.

Since my grandmother died, I’ve been thinking a lot about what a person’s life amounts to in the end. She was a school teacher in the same town all her adult life and everyone she taught remembered her. Say her name on the street or pubs of Pocklington and people would get that misty look in their eyes only old teachers can produce. Strict but passionate, she had tried to make the world a fascinating place for them and they loved her for it. It was something that always made me proud when she was alive, but in my grief, it seemed suddenly desperately sad to think that when those people die – when I die – there will be no memories left in the world that her name conjures. Even a life as full and meaningful as my grandmother’s would, in barely a flicker of history, fade to nothing, like the gravestones I passed too worn now to make out the names.

Then it occured to me, as I sat watching the birds hop across the slow-waving branches, that I was wrong. The reason was the book in my hand, or what it represented. Like many of her generation, my grandmother believed emotions were generally best left unexplored. But she was endlessly curious about the world, whether that meant travelling as widely as possibly or just looking more closely at what was on her doorstep. It was an approach to life she tried to instil in her pupils, her children, and in me. My job is simply to carry it on. That way, we survive not just in memories but in the legacy of the examples we set and the tools we pass down for future generations as they face their own challenges in the world.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more