I spent yesterday, Father’s Day, if not in the physical presence of my dear father, in his good company.
All morning and into the afternoon I opened box after box of books — many of which were originally my father’s and which I have taken, or been given, from his library — carefully considering whether each one would make it onto a shelf or be set aside to be taken to a used bookstore or donated to Housing Works. After separating three large boxes-worth from the “keep” piles stacked haphazardly on the floor and shelves, then breaking for a quick lunch and a trip to the farmer’s market for garlic scapes, strawberries, rhubarb, and kale, I returned to book-sorting in the afternoon. For several hours more, each volume that had made it into the “keep” stacks was reevaluated, then even more texts ruthlessly removed. Those that made the final cut were sorted and grouped by genre, until my collection had been pared down from four large bookcases to only two (albeit with pleasingly over-crowded shelves).
What remains in my library is the best of the best, the most loved, useful, important-to-me books, colorfully arranged and categorized — children’s books, poetry, philosophy and religion, classic and contemporary fiction, memoir, travel writing, history, biography, politics, business, letters, sociology, reference, theater craft, writing craft, essays, art and design, health and healing, and my favorite shelf dedicated to my most beloved and inspiring writers — William Maxwell, Iris Murdoch, A.S. Byatt, John Steinbeck, Richard Russo, Mark Twain, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Shakespeare.
Deciding what to keep and what to let go required careful consideration. I have culled from my collection many books in the public domain; as wonderful as it was to see War & Peace in the mix, I can call up a copy on my iPad instead of straining my eyes at the small print on the page. But the paperback, spine-cracked copy of Great Expectations stays, because my papa bought it for me at a small bookstore when I was 12 years old, and I remember reading it in the waning light of the backseat as we drove back home to Twin Falls after a rare winter day-trip to Sun Valley. Travels With Charley, purchased somewhere on Route 66 on my road-trip to Maine in 2001 when all my books stayed in storage in Seattle goes into the donation box, because the small Pocket Classic edition of my father’s, the one whose cover and loose pages are kept together with a rubber band, remains in its proper place with a dozen other novels of Steinbeck’s.
Hard to imagine that two years ago, when I moved from Pine Street to Thomas Street in Portland, I went through a similar process, then eliminating twenty bags of books, yet yesterday there were still so many to place. These books have been hauled from Idaho to Seattle to Maine over the past twenty years, and though I’ve loved them all, it feels lighter and better to be the proud owner of fewer heavy, dusty tomes. But even after going through this exercise two times in two years, it is still almost impossible to eliminate any book that my father has marked and notated.
There was nothing fancy about my father’s office/library in my childhood home. His massive red vinyl chair clashed with the garish red and black stiff carpeting, and the light filtering through the basement windows was dim. But still, it was a magical place, because the walls were lined with bookshelves and each shelf filled with books — politics, poetry, philosophy, plays, history, biography, classics — and I knew that those books were more important to my father than anything else. He read voraciously, to himself and to our family at dinner, so I grew up with James Thurber stories, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and The Chronicles of Narnia performed aloud, over however many months or years it took him to read the complete series.
For my father, a book is not something physically precious, the pages to remain pristine, spines to be left unbroken. The meaning of the words is what holds weight for him, and that’s what turns these battered volumes and yellowing pages into pure gold for me. When I pick up a book my father has read, I know in the front cover he’ll have written his name, the date of purchase, and the date he read the book. He’ll have listed unfamiliar vocabulary words, along with their their definitions. He’ll have marked the page numbers of thought-provoking ideas, along with notes for further consideration, and he’ll have underlined and annotated page after page throughout.
Book markings never reveal that he’s lost interest partway through and turned his attention elsewhere. No, he keeps up his critical, thoughtful reading until the very last word, which is how, in his “retirement” (he no longer works for the Idaho Education Association, but remains as busy as he ever was during his 35-year career) he is reading the classic fiction he never took the time to before — Les Miserables, Moby Dick, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Sister Carrie, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jude the Obscure, The Count of Monte Cristo. My father is a much more disciplined reader than I, refusing to allow himself to get distracted or deviate from the mission before him.
It was my father who taught me, by example, to read and to deeply cherish books and ideas, so that when, in one year, I heard the same comment from Longfellow Books and from Michael at the Portland Public Library — “You read so broadly, and such interesting things!” — it was a tribute to my father, more than a revelation of my character.
My parents are themselves planning to downsize and move into a new home next summer, and I know that it will be difficult, and painful, for my father to pare down his book collection. He’ll surely offer me countless volumes from his library — those he can bear to part with, but that he hopes will remain in the family. So I’ll be going through this evaluation exercise all over again. I suspect that more books of my own acquisition will be relegated to the donation box, in order to open up space on my shelves for the books that he so dearly, and deeply, loves, and that, in this way, he’ll always be present, and close.