Waiting to Read Venice by Jan Morris

Photo of Venice canal by Julia Khalimova from Pexels

By Clare Diston

I still haven’t read the last book my granddad ever gave me. I have tried on a few occasions, opening it up and getting no further than the first page, not through any fault of the book’s, but because I know that, for me, it is still not the right time.

Venice by Jan Morris

The book is Venice by Jan Morris, an exploration of the history and politics and atmosphere of that unlikely city, a cacophony of light and marble and art that stands knee-deep in a lagoon in Northern Italy. “The best book about Venice ever written,” the front cover declares. A bold statement, given how much has been written about that strange, gorgeous city. The cover of the book is dark blue, a hazy photograph of a gray-domed church, a silhouetted forest of wooden piles in the foreground, as if seen through the gloom of early evening. Those colors remind me of the very first time I saw the city, arriving by boat in quiet darkness and learning that, at night, Venice is eerily still.

I keep two things inside this book. The first is the last birthday card I made for my granddad. It is a green card, and I have painstakingly cut out each letter of the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY GRANDDAD and stuck them in a vertical cascade on the front. Inside is a picture of me, halfway through my first year of university, with a new haircut that I thought he would like to see. On the back I have drawn ninety-two kisses, one for each year of his life.

The second thing I keep is the receipt from the bookshop where he bought Venice for me. The receipt is quite faded now—the print gray and delicate—except for a handful of words that were written in biro by a man called Richard, who apparently took the order over the phone and then called my granddad ten days later to come and collect it. My granddad ordered the book on May 30; he collected it on June 9, and he died the next day.

My granddad bought me this book because I had told him I was going to live in Venice in my second year. My university offered a semester abroad as part of the Erasmus program—the opportunity to study English literature, of all things, in Italy. Apparently the connection between Nottingham and Venice was set up partly for academic reasons and partly because a couple of tutors fancied taking work trips there. I don’t blame them; by my first year at university I’d already been to the city a few times on holiday, and I understood the draw it could have on a person. Even now, more than ten years after living there, I still have dreams about the place—about being on the other side of the lagoon, desperately trying to charter a boat to take me across, seeing the city shining in the distance but being unable to reach it.

On the last day of his life, my granddad got up in the morning (always an early riser), washed, dressed, and walked to the bookshop. It was less than five minutes’ walk from where he lived, but he was ninety-two and the streets between his building and the bookshop are cobbled. Still, he made it there and picked up the book at 10:07. Then he turned around and walked home.

It makes sense that the last thing my granddad bought was a book. When he was a younger man, he worked in a bookshop, and he always had books around the house. Some of my clearest memories of visiting him when I was a child include books—the ones I was drawn to were his eye-catching collections of Asterix and Tintin, and a great thick Bible that I couldn’t stop touching, even though I could never make myself read past the first page. When my granddad got older, my brother and I would go to the local library and borrow large-print books for him, and later still my parents bought him a magnifying glass and books on CD, just so he wouldn’t have to stop reading.

When he was found the day that he died, his flat was neat and tidy, and there was one thing on the dining table: Venice by Jan Morris, with the receipt still tucked inside.

I don’t know, yet, when the right time will be for me to read this book. Perhaps it will be ten years from now, or twenty, or when I am an old woman, or when I am next grieving. I like to imagine that I will read it in Venice—take a trip there by myself and read it in cafes and on boats and sitting on marble steps that descend into milky canals. Perhaps I will never read it; perhaps there is never a right time to start and finish the last gift a person has given you. But I do know that I will have this book until the end of my life, just like my granddad did until the end of his.


Clare Diston is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader based in Bristol, United Kingdom. She writes short stories, literary or sci-fi (or both!), and her work has appeared in The Bohemyth, BULL, and Dissections magazines. You can find more of Clare’s writing on her website at clarediston.com and follow her on Twitter at @clare_diston.

Clare Diston

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