Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country

“We have lots of books in our house. They are our primary decorative motif – books in piles on the coffee table, framed book covers, books sorted into stacks on every available surface, and of course books on shelves along most walls. Besides the visible books, there are the books waiting in the wings, the basement books, the garage books, the storage locker books. They are a sort of insulation, soundproofing some walls. They function as furniture, they prop up sagging fixtures and disguised by quilts function as tables. The quantities and types of books are fluid, arriving like hysterical cousins in overnight shipping envelopes only to languish near the overflowing mail bench. Advance Reading Copies collect at bedside, to be dutifully examined – to ignore them and read Henry James or Barbara Pym instead becomes a guilty pleasure. I can’t imagine home without an overflow of books. The point of books is to have way too many but to always feel you never have enough, or the right one at the right moment, but then sometimes to find you’d longed to fall asleep reading The Aspern Papers, and there it is.”

For some readers, that paragraph is probably all you need to go: yeah I think I’ll go get a copy of this book/ check my library catalogue now.

But if you need more reasons, well, this book by Louise Erdrich is quite a delight.

There is Erdrich’s brimming enthusiasm and genuine love for books. Upon finding out that she is expecting her fourth child, at age 47, she is at first alarmed but soon thinks of a “most wonderful consolation”, of being able to read while nursing a baby.

And then a wondrous, fantastical site – an island on Rainy Lake, Ontario, that is home to thousands of rare books. Mallard Island, once home to conservationist and explorer Ernest Oberholtzer who died in 1977, holds 11,000 books. The Oberholtzer Foundation runs week-long programs in summer, for writers and artists, Ojibwe language groups, healers etc, and Erdrich and her young daughter were among those fortunate enough to be given a place, and to stay in Oberholtzer’s own house.

“There is a fever that overcomes a book-lover who has limited time to spend on Ober’s island. A fever to read. Or at least to open the books. There is no question of finishing or even delving deeply. I have only days. Among the books, I feel what is almost a low swell of grief, a panic.”

Yeah I do realize that this book is titled Books and Islands, so if you’re into islands, that’s a nice feature too, as Erdrich and her baby and the baby’s father (who is an Ojibwe spiritual guide) take a trip through the islands of southern Ontario where their ancestors have lived. There are rock paintings, wildlife of all sorts, plenty of history and family stories. And of course lots of reading goes on, in dingy roadside motels, in beds familiar and strange.

Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country is part of the National Geographic Directions series, of which I’ve read Jamaica Kincaid’s Among Flowers and Jan Morris’ A Writer’s House in Wales. The books in this series have been such wonderful reads, I hope to be able to get hold of the rest of them.

(Here I have to sheepishly admit that I returned my copy of Morris’ book too early – I had finished it, yes, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and was intending to type out some passages especially the bookish ones, in order to write about it. And somehow it ended up in my library bag and I happily plonked it into the returns bin without looking. So it’s no longer in my hands. But it was a great read, and it makes me want to read more by Morris, who has had quite a life herself.)

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