Uncle Simon had a cat named Mephistopheles and a stuffed barn owl, both of which sat in the window of his book shop watching the world pass by. When he babysat us on Saturdays, he would let us rummage through the old rolltop desk in the back office, unearthing mysterious coins, peppermints, abandoned fountain pens, cracker crumbs, mouse droppings. We ate buttered toast and listened to Benny Goodman and Nana Mouskouri on his suitcase record player. At the end of the day he would let us help him balance the till and lock up.
It was in those cozy confines, on wet afternoons with the kettle whistling, that I first began to fall in love with words. Firstly, of course, I fell in love with the stories that they told. I would sit on the faded Persian carpet that smelled of dust and cat pee and pull books off the shelves at random.
It was in Uncle Simon’s shop that I read Treasure Island for the first time, and stories from the Arabian Nights. I was nine years old and discovering a world of arcane knowledge. I drank Ovaltine and read The Little Prince. I read about Sherlock Holmes stashing opium in the toe of his slipper. I read Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
Soon, I began to have a feeling for words above and beyond their narrative purposes. I would flip through the pages looking for words I hadn’t seen before. Cornucopia, amorphous, prandial, operculum. I would write them on paper and read them slowly and solemnly like Latin Mass, like druidic incantations. Lachrymose, nubile, antediluvian, sesamoid were words to conjure with.
Try this sometime: Take a book of poetry from the shelf and read it with absolutely no attention to imagery or meaning. Read it aloud and listen to it the same way you would listen to music – an aria or a bluegrass tune. Hear the way that some words and phrases wheeze and hum like Baba’s cherry red accordion, while others tumble in silvery saxophone cascades. Notice that some words sound exactly like ice skates hissing across a frozen pond, while others drone like sun-drunk wasps, or rustle like badgers sneaking through shoulder-high corn.
In all the years since, Uncle Simon’s shop, stories, like food and music and the joys of the senses, have filled my life with riches. In those years I’ve read, it seems countless books. In all that time of swimming in the great oceans of other people’s ideas and ink, though, I’ve never had a more profound connection to magic of language than the connection I had when strange, unfathomable words fell like spells from my tongue.