Monday, April 30, 2007

Reverse Flips

If my father started reading a book, he finished it, whether he liked it or not. He read all sorts of books. He read good books and he read trash. He finished them all. I tried to persuade him that giving up on a book is not a reflection of weak character but simply a decision to spend your reading time elsewhere; as my father would have said, it was like talking to the wall. He was strongly in favor of plot. He liked short stories with those little reverse flips at the end.

When I was a child, we didn't have a lot of books around. We lived in the same house from the time I was six months old till I was twelve. Going over the rooms in my mind now, I can't picture any bookcases, except for a couple of shelves in a secretary that my parents kept in their bedroom. Those books had originally belonged to my aunt, my father's older sister. So did the secretary, in fact. The books came with the secretary. My father sometimes said that he didn't understand why a person would have many books in the house, when you could borrow them from the library at no cost. What was the point of buying a lot of books and keeping them even after you'd read them? He used the phrase he'd use if I remarked, say, that going to Europe for a while after college might be the sort of thing I'd like to do: "What's the advantage?" He didn't mean the word "advantage" in the sense of taking advantage or gaining some advantage; he used it to question whether something that seemed frivolous or luxurious was truly necessary and sensible. My father had a strong sense of enoughness.

When I started college -- I was working at the time -- I joined the Book-Of-The-Month-Club. The initial offer of four books for a dollar was something I couldn't turn down. I started to buy books fairly regularly from the book club. Our house started to fill up with books: books from the book club, my sister's college books and my college books. I built a bookcase in the recreation room in the house we were living in at the time to accommodate the growing collection. My father used to say: "When I retire, I plan to read all those books." In fact, my father did begin to read the books, cover to cover, when he retired. That was when I was in my third year of college. I began to ponder why my father read certain books and not others. He turned down a biography about Einstein by Ronald Clark, something I thought might interest him. Yet he read a critique of modern European culture written by George Steiner: a terse, abstract text. It finally dawned on me what motivated his choices. He read books by Jewish authors. It didn't matter what the topic was. It could be a cookbook. If the book was written by a Jew, my father would read it. If the book were about a Jew, but written by a gentile, my father wouldn't read it. It was as if my father simply wasn't interested in what a non-Jew had to say. While no matter what a Jew had to say, on any topic, would interest my father.

My father died one year after I finished college, July 1, 1976. Odd that he should have chosen the bicentennial weekend to leave this earth. I still remember the book my father was reading when he died. It was The Lives of the Great Composers, by Harold C. Schonberg, music critic of the New York Times. My father had used a lottery ticket as a book mark. I was recently looking at the book and I noticed the lottery ticket, dated July 30, 1975, inserted in the chapter on the eighteenth-century German composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck. Gluck! Gluck, my father was interested in! Why? Because the book was written by a Jew.

1 comment:

20Th Century Boy said...

Rarara mente interesante je.