My Father’s Books

The 1950’s & 1960’s

On Sunday nights, in the house at 420 Front Street in Owego, NY, there was usually an empty chair in our living room. My mother and three older brothers would gather around an oversized wooden console that housed a Black & White TV. The Ed Sullivan Show was about to come on the air. The diagonal screen measurement was probably about 20″, but I wouldn’t swear by that. Some memories dim with time…others stay fresh. It’s odd though. I sat and stared at this TV for years and couldn’t tell you what color the cabinet was.

But, the empty chair? Who was missing?

It was my father. Only on rare occasions did he join us for a TV show ( think he was present when Elvis was on the Ed Sullivan Show). So where was he? The answer was simple. He was upstairs. He was reading. This was not just a Sunday night activity for him…he was always upstairs (in whatever bedroom he had chosen that year for his ‘study’)…reading.

Our house was full of books. Upstairs and down, there were bookcases lined with a wide assortment of fiction and non-fiction. And almost all of it belonged to my father.

Today

We have a wonderful barrister bookcase that I brought from my family home after it was sold in 2005. It has glass windows. One sleepless night a few weeks ago, I went on the prowl for something to read. I decided to look into the bookcase at the books that we brought from my father’s library. Now I began to understand what his favorite reads were…back in the days while the rest of the family watched TV and he would retire to his comfy chair in one of the upstairs bedrooms. I began to piece together his changing tastes in literature. I determined that the oldest books dated to the 1940’s. (He bought 420 Front St. in 1945). I discovered a veritable treasure trove of pulp crime novels, early one’s written by Raymond Carver and John Dickinson Carr. There was Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene. It was next to Double Indemnity by James Cain. There were scores of these fine old pulps (even more in our bookcase downstairs).

I pulled out a copy of 5 Murderers by Raymond Chandler. I checked out the back cover. The book cost an astounding twenty-five cents! The highest price I saw on these books was fifty cents. Now, when I lived in Manhattan in the 1990’s, I used to see book vendors on the sidewalk in front of Zabar’s on Broadway. They would sell these very pulps, sealed nicely in a zip-lock baggie, for $5.00 or more. Quick math calculation: that’s a 2,000% increase. I am sitting on a goldmine!

I moved to hardcovers. There was E.M. Forester, Jack London, Robert Lewis Stevenson and so many more. Most of these were inexpensive book club editions, many had notices on the back cover to purchase war bonds.

In the upper right corner of the bookcase was a small collection of my own Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books that gave me so much joy in my pre-teen years

As my father aged, his taste in books changed. I used to see him sitting next to a stack of six or seven novels from the new releases section of the Coburn Free Library. The titles of these books, I can not recall, but I remember thinking at the time (1960’s) that this is what adults read. I wonder who the authors were. This was the days before Stephen King and John Grisham. I don’t think he’d like that genre.

My father passed away before I published my own novel. He never got to see his son’s modest success, but I’m sure he’d be proud. He tried to write a family history, but never got very far. He admitted that writing a long piece was a task beyond him.

But he sure could devour the writer’s he loved.

And he passed down his love of reading and books to all of his sons. He never pushed anything. He taught by example. I have done the same for my children. Erin and Brian are both avid readers. (Brian has been working on The Guns of August for a few years now. He has it on his Kindle. He told me once that there are about 900+ pages using the normal font. When he changes the font to a larger size, he is suddenly facing a 13,000 page book about the origins of WWI).

An indelible memory, a central, strong and clear memory of my dad is of him sitting and reading…until it was his bedtime.

He passed away at the age of 90. I’m sure he was reading when he was five or six. That’s 85 years of books. A lot of books, a lot of words and a lot of worlds to explore…for anyone.

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Books I’ll Never Finish While I Can’t Sleep

[Source: Google search.]

It’s 5:30 am. I just put aside a book that I probably will never finish. And I can’t sleep. I toss. I turn. I stare at the ceiling…at the wall and the glowing numerals of my digital clock. Hypnos has not come to my bedside tonight. Morpheus will not visit me and give me sweet dreams. Maybe that’s a good thing. As Bob Dylan once said: “My dreams are made of iron and steel.”

Such is my dilemma. I am an avid reader. I won’t bore you about bragging of the three books a months I read. But, there is a small but growing list of books that I began (in some cases, many years ago) that I will never finish. As a rule, I don’t read any book twice. The possible exception is Lost Horizon by James Hilton. It’s one of my favorites. It’s about a man chasing his dream.

I can even read long books. In the mid-1970’s, I read the Bible from cover to cover. Very interesting. Lots of sex and violence. I began reading In Search of Lost Time about twenty years ago. I only have about 800 pages left. I’ll make it happen. If if took Proust years to write it, I can take years to read it.

I’m now about 34% of the way through David Copperfield. I’ll do it. I promise.

But, there is one book (pictured above) that I began about 55 years ago. The Vicar of Wakefield. I like reading about English vicars. It’s comforting to live in a small village in England, even if its only on paper. But for some reason I cannot complete this rather slim volume. What am I blocked about?

[Source: Google search.]

The same applies to The Nature of Light and Color in the Open Air. Now, I realize that this title is somewhat titillating. Perhaps even a little risqué. I assure you, it isn’t even mildly pornographic even though the term: ‘naked eye’ is plainly printed on the cover. And as a former science teacher, I know I would relish the details of rainbows and clouds. But, forty years have passed since I first purchased the book. I don’t even know where the physical copy is right now. Maybe behind some shadow. Or at the end of the rainbow where all good treasures are found.

[My photo.]

About ten years ago I purchased a copy of The Tale of Genji (at a discount price at Barnes & Noble). It’s an important book, written over 1,000 years ago. My copy has 1,120 pages. My bookmark rests on page 5. If I read five pages every third night, at that rate I will finish the book in 20.4 months. That would be mid-May of 2020.

Not bad, considering that I’m a slow reader.

But, will any of these help me fall asleep?

 

 

The Count and I

So, I made a big deal on Facebook about the fact that I was undertaking the reading of The Count of Monte Cristo.  The reason for that was that my edition was 1,462 pages long.  The older I get, the more I think there better be something worth the investment of my precious time.  My son thinks the experience deserves a blog.  Well, here it is.

I realize that many of my friends on FB read the book in high school.  They are way ahead of me.  I read The Tale of Two Cities in 11th grade.  I read Steinbeck and Hemingway on my own.  It’s just that a few classics somehow got by me and I am now trying to play catch-up.

But, I ran into some obstacles in my reading of the “modern” writers of note.  I avoided Infinite Jest because I thought it was overwritten and a little pretentious. [The footnotes drove me crazy.].  I also avoided Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow because I had trouble following the plot (if there was one).

But, I found The Count of Monte Cristo to be one of the best of the classic books I’ve ever read.  It was a page turner.  Not in the way that the Russian Masters like Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace, but I thought Monte Cristo was much more engaging.

It’s themes of love, love lost and vengeance resonated with me.

Next up is the long overlooked David Copperfield.  I’ll keep you posted.

 

Reflections on Father’s Day [My Split Personality]

My wife showed me the mirror.

“Shall I toss it?”

I looked at the brass Art Nouveau frame, just enough Erte to grab my eye.

“No way,” I said.

I was standing on the deck and I held the object d’art up and found my reflection.  The glass was broken in several places.  My face was distorted, like when I gaze upon a beautiful woman on the Coney Island beach, who happens to be on break from the “Freak Show”.  She is covered in tattoos.  Or, distorted like when I gaze at the rotting carcass of a king crab on the sand of a lonely beach on Grand Manan Island in Maine.  Or, distorted like when I am forced to listen to a CD by Miley Cyrus.  Or, distorted like when I hear someone say that Bob Dylan can’t really sing.

Get the idea?

But, as I looked closely at the broken mirror, I saw several very different versions of myself.  One part of me was the old man I had changed into when I closed my eyes for a nap a few years ago and woke up in late middle age.  I’ve had gray hair most of my life, but what was that white on my head?  (My son told me that I had that Phil Donahue look…and that was twenty years ago).  Another part of me shows the fear I always felt about getting old and facing my own mortality.  Behind that part of my head, I could see the chaos that was the universe…and I remembered all that I did to keep that terror of history at bay.

But there was yet another portion of my visage that I saw…more clearly now.  It was one of contentment and peace.  One of thankfulness that I’ve made it this long, seen so much and, hopefully, affected more than one life.

Yes, I was a father.  Twice.  Now, I’m a grandfather.  A tiny bit of my DNA is residing inside of a little boy living in Orting, Washington.  Another little molecule or two lives in some mitochondria of my daughter, also of Orting.  What did she inherit from me?  A love of travel? An insatiable love of books?  And, a trace or two dwells inside the boy who was once so shy, fearful and gentle.  Now, I see him as a man who outsizes me like I’m Y. A. Tittle and he is Bronco Nagurski.

I put the mirror down and went into the dining room where, in a small frame, is a photo of my father standing proudly beside his 1950 something Sunbeam Alpine.  I took the picture in our driveway of our house in Owego, NY.  Next to that is a another photo of him taken in the early 1930’s.  I looked at that picture for years before I realized it was a “selfie”.  Perhaps one of the first.  I can see a thin white string leading from his hand toward the camera.  He had it rigged so that he just tugged on the string and his image would be frozen forever on a sheet of silver-coated paper.

What did I have inside me that was part of him?  His love of reading?  His Irish heritage?  His restless nature?  His curiosity of nearly everything (even ABBA when he was in his late 80’s).

It’s a funny thing to think about.  How we are all parts of a jigsaw puzzle the size of which would overwhelm your brain if you stopped to consider the random choices, history, a right turn here, a left turn there.

A broken mirror gives me, as a father, so many choices.  To look back on my own dad.  To look at myself.  And, to look at the life I helped to bring into this world.

The store in Saranac Lake called yesterday.  The broken glass of the brass mirror is fixed now.  No more split personalities.

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