When I was a young girl, my parents had a close friend known to me as “Aunt Lila.” Aunt Lila was an older lady whom I thought very refined and elegant. When I was still quite young, Aunt Lila gave me a gift for my birthday or Christmas–I can’t remember which.
That was surprising in itself, because in my world it was almost unheard-of to receive a gift from someone who was not a family member. The gift was two books, both of them large and imposing hardbacks. One of them was Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb, and the other one was The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends adapted by Anne Terry White.
Of course, at first I did not comprehend the wealth of intellectual riches contained in those two volumes. The books looked long and boring, despite the fact that both had illustrations. However, the genius of both volumes was that they consisted of many short stories which could be read in one sitting, so opening either book did not mean one was committing to some kind of grim marathon. And of course, on some level even as a child, I felt obligated to read the books because they had been given to me.
The books came to Africa with us, and when I was home on holiday from school I often pulled them out and read a story or two. There was no television or telephone or computer to distract me in those days–just me and my two big books. There were other books that I read often throughout my growing-up years, but these two were special to me because they had been a gift from Aunt Lila. By the time I finished high school I must have read both books through several times, enjoying them more upon each re-reading.
Given my long association with these two books, it’s not terribly surprising that I grew up to love Shakespeare and also stories with a strong mythic theme like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Sometimes, as I prepare to teach a Shakespeare play, I find myself marveling at how much of who I am today can be credited to these two books and one other (The Golden Treasury of Poetry).
The books came back from Africa with me when I finished high school, then made a return trip when my husband and I served in Zambia in the early 90s. And yes, I still have them. My older children enjoyed them as much as I did. That was before the days when the internet took up so much of everyone’s life!
I could not find a trace of my edition of Tales from Shakespeare online–it was published in the U.K. and I’m sure has long been out of print. However, The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends is still going strong, with the exact same cover:
When I looked it up and read some of the reviews, I found one I could have written myself. It said, “This is a book that marks your life forever.”