Education Language

Which way do you tilt?

April 22, 2011
Books in a bookshelf

Bookshelf cultural trends

When Radek and I moved into an apartment together, one of our first joint purchases was a bookshelf. Until then, Radek had managed to store the few books that he owned on his television stand. In the short time I’d lived in Prague before I met Radek, I’d managed to acquire a sizeable collection of books, both new and used. The scattering of English-language bookshops in Prague were safe havens and a taste of home. Among the many new things to discover in the city, there was also a whole new world of Czech and European literature. Along with Czech classics by Kundera and Kafka, I also picked up collections of experimental poetry and novellas by new Czech authors.

Having a sporadic teaching schedule meant that I spent a considerable amount of time on public transportation. I pored through the books going to and from classes. With a book in my hand, I didn’t mind riding the bus to Bohnice to teach a one-to-one lesson or taking the tram to Hvězda where I taught afternoon lessons to children. As time went on, I noticed that most Czechs reading on public transport covered their books with newsprint or wrapping paper. I assumed they wanted to keep their books in better condition. In an attempt to fit in, I did the same. It wasn’t until I talked to friends later, that I realized covering books had as much to do with keeping the reading material private, as it did with prolonging the life of the object. I thought the cultural of keeping books private was directly associated with years under the Communist regime, but a Spanish friend told me that in Spain people also cover their books, particularly when reading in public areas.

When Radek and I selected the belongings that we were going to pack up from the US to move back to Prague, the inventory of essentials included a surprisingly large number of books. Radek grumbled that the books contributed to more than half the weight of our total shipment. In truth, he was close. But instead of admitting he was right, I bemoaned all the books that I had to leave behind. When we moved back, Anna Lee was still a toddler and I wanted to make sure she had enough English language children’s books as well. Returning to our Prague apartment, we soon realized that our small IKEA bookshelf would no longer hold our ever-expanding reading collection. I was thrilled the day that we agreed to purchase a full-size bookshelf and transfer the smaller one to the bedroom for Anna.

Over the years, I’ve brought suitcases of books on each trip home, both for the children and for myself, which means we’ve periodically needed to add more bookshelf space. Although Radek sometimes hints that we already have enough books, showing our children examples of different cultures and customs during story time seems like a relatively inexpensive way of giving them a taste of the world. We do go regularly to the library, but still, I love giving my children books they can keep and cherish. I’ve seen their eyes light up when they find an old book of mine at my parents’ house.

Raising bilingual children also means that our children’s books represent our respective heritages and languages. We have Krtek’s (Little Mole) stories as well as Dr. Seuss’s A Cat in the Hat, and we just as often read Angelina Ballerina tales as we do Josef Čapek’s beloved Pejsek a Kočička (Doggie and Pussycat) series. One of the children’s favorite pasttimes is being read to. When I’m not available, they’ll often settle down by themselves with a pile of books, just to look through the pictures. Reshelving and organizing the books is a task less pleasurable than reading, needless to say. I often find the books put in upside down or spine-end first, but straightening the children’s bookshelves brings me pleasure. I love leafing through classics that I remember from my childhood or unexpectedly finding stories that we haven’t read together yet. For our birthdays this year, Oliver and I received a package of five books from my aunt. His are board books, mine are fiction and I know we’ll equally enjoy them.

While straightening the children’s books the other day, I made a horizontal stack of several larger books to save space and to act as bookends. I noticed that every time I tried to position a Czech storybook with the cover facing up, I ended up with the words on the book’s spine upside down, or vice versa. Curious and slightly perplexed, I looked through all the bookshelves in our house and discovered the same pattern. On Czech books, the spine text starts at the bottom and goes up, while on English books, the text starts at the top and goes down. Interestingly, our English-Czech dictionaries and Czech novels translated from other languages also have the spine text printed from top to bottom, perhaps because the printers adopted the printing style of the original. I’ve been surrounded by Czech books for over nine years, but I’d never noticed this difference before.

I’ve always instinctively shelved our books accordingly to their native culture. Thus, to read the spines, you must tilt your head left or right depending on which language the book you’re looking for is written in. Without intending to, I’d balanced the cultures. Once I’d noted the difference on the spine, it actually made me happy to look at our family’s spine-up and spine-down collection. While currently, we have far more English language books than Czech books, I anticipate both collections will continue to grow as the children acquire more reading material for school and pleasure.

For any family who’s interested in passing on some of the English-language books their children have outgrown, please contact Class Acts, whose Storybridge Project is running a book drive to collect 500 English language children’s books for the Prague public library on Korunni. Happy reading!

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