The Emperor's New Clothes

My father was a bibliophile. His passion for books started in his childhood, and I recall some of the early books he kept on his bookshelf: nearly complete works of Julius Verne, books by Jack London. Each of them neatly wrapped in either cream or blue packing paper, a handwritten label on the front, positioned with a millimetre precision, and inside an ex libris stamp in the shape of a pocket watch. The love of books remained with him all of his life, indeed during one of the last lucid conversations I had with him he was complaining about all the new books he acquired but didn’t have time to read yet.

But out of all of his books one sticks firmly in mind. It was a slim volume, no more than half a centimetre thick, a glossy grey cover with a cloth spine binding. Its title was ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ and it was in English.

Back then when it first appeared I was only just learning to read Czech, so a foreign book felt somewhat mysterious (my very first encounter with the pesky ‘the’!), but I was drawn to the copious illustrations in vivid colours that were, I think, photographs of a marionette set.

I can see now that it was really a children’s book, I suspect my father bought it to practice his English, self-taught from the lessons broadcast by the Voice of America, which he taped so he could work through them properly. My wife says his English was very decent, spoken without any trace of that hard to shake Central European accent; I would not know, he steadfastly refused to speak it in my presence till the day he died, but it was certainly good enough to take me through the story.

I was reminded of that book this week. Back then, the school age me found the core premise of it laughably incredulous. The grownup me cannot but smile at the childish naiveté.