“Look around you,” he said, pointing to all the books on the shelves. “This will be my legacy when I’m gone, because I sure won’t be able to leave you kids a lot of money.”
Growing up, I most often saw my father doing one of two things: grading papers or reading a book. He loved books. He stockpiled them. He could never leave a bookstore without five or six new purchases under his arm or in a bag. Before Barnes & Noble and Borders achieved their heyday, my father had already become a regular. Even when money was tight, the catalogs from various publishers kept rolling in. (He preferred buying to borrowing because he liked to make his own notes right on the page.)
At one point my parents ran out of shelf space in their big old, three-story house, thanks to his ever-expanding collection. His solution was to sneak a bookshelf, or two, onto the landing of each staircase. My mom once got so ticked off, she demanded that he move some of the excess to his office at the university. So the next day, the whole Time Life series on the Vietnam War, along with several other volumes about China and Japan, got transported to his workspace. They found a new home next to the textbooks and novels he used for his college history courses.
I should point out that my mom also grew up appreciating books, especially novels from and about faraway lands. Long before she met her future American husband, she had read Japanese translations of several dozen Western classics. The Three Musketeers was a favorite.
My earliest memory of being read to is when my father introduced me to the world of Maurice Sendak through In the Night Kitchen. He read the story to me over and over, and Mickey became one of our most beloved fictional characters. The boy with the milk was eventually replaced by Charlotte and Wilbur.
Now you’d think that because of the perpetual presence of books in my life, I too became a voracious reader early on. In fact, I often had trouble sitting still to read. Given the choice, I preferred watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island.
But I did read. When the activity was most enjoyable, it was usually because I – not my father and not a teacher – had made the selection. I went through a biography phase that started around middle school and extended into high school. I read about old movie stars and later, young rock stars. I loved books that allowed me to skip back and forth, jump ahead, gawk at photos. I loved words, even poorly chosen ones, which gave a glimpse into the life of a famous person. A hard-cover biography on Judy Garland mesmerized me during one vacation.
During this period, I got excited about the latest issue of People Magazine, not the next novel for English class. I’d walk to the nearest drugstore just to stand at the magazine rack and thumb through the pages, filled with delicious photos of flashy celebrities.
The summer after I saw the groundbreaking miniseries on TV, I bought a copy of Roots by Alex Haley. I couldn’t bear to put it down and would read late into the night.
Summer reading lists for high school could be torture. One hot August evening, just before my freshman year, I flung a paperback copy of Vanity Fair, the required text for Mr. Foster’s English class, clear across my bedroom. The thought of tackling a 700-page novel in time for the new school year put me over the edge. I was just happy my dad never heard the sound of the book as it hit the wall. (I’m also happy to say that, once I settled down, not only did the book survive my initial wrath, it also enchanted me from beginning to end.)
Perhaps it’s my brain’s refusal to be completely taken over by the staccato nature of most online communication these days. Or I’m just getting older, and suddenly feel an urgency to enrich my imagination and inspire my spirit through something I can look at, touch and hold. Whatever the reason, I’ve decided that one of my goals is to make up for time lost to jobs, housework and other responsibilities over the years, and read more books. (I don’t see myself getting an e-reader anytime soon, though. It just wouldn’t feel the same.)
I couldn’t always appreciate the books from my dad when he was still alive. His exuberance could be overwhelming at times. Five years after his death, the absence of his intense example as a reader remains a deeply felt loss, but also something of a relief. I inherited quite a few items from his personal library, and many more are gifts from long ago, but the hand-me-down shelves are increasingly lined with titles I’ve discovered on my own.
A few years ago a friend remarked how impressed he was by all the books on feminism he spied on the shelves in my living room. I pointed out that most were from my old man. The same man who, the summer after my freshman year in college, gave me a copy of Fat is a Feminist Issue. It was his way of trying to make me feel less anxious about the “freshman fifteen” I had gained at college.
A few weeks ago, after news of Nora Ephron’s death, I searched for her book, Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women, which I’d read for a high-school elective. I ended up finding two copies: the one I’d kept from Ms. Kloepfer’s class, and another paperback version, which had totally slipped from memory.
I opened the second one, a 2000 edition with a brighter cover, only to find an inscription on the inside.
Try it with the blue cheese dressing…