On books

I’ve not written anything here for a wee while. Life’s been swept along the past couple weeks, with plans and logistics and appointments and to-do lists and paperwork. I’ve been feeling like the proverbial camel, my days filled with potential straws stacked up before me like Jenga blocks. I veer between feverish activity and giddy surrender, facing the impossible bottleneck of competing priorities. Not only have I not been writing, I’ve also not been reading.

I have been pondering one of Cat’s posts, this one, in which she describes her relationship to books. Her post touched a vulnerable spot, and what I’ve been doing is dancing around and around with the thoughts that it triggered, and the memory that it sparked. I’ve been distracting myself with my appointments and to-do lists, and skirting around the edges of a brief exchange of words that I once had with my dad, outside a Cambridge bookshop.

My dad was a thwarted scholar. He loved philosophy and history and the life of the mind, but chose instead to pursue a business career, in a working class boy’s bid to make good as his family’s first college graduate. His widowed mother relied heavily and pointedly upon him to support her and his younger brothers, and so any dream of pursuing an academic, intellectual life was sacrificed on the altar of upward mobility. In classic family dysfunction, he fed his lost dreams and ambitions to his children, ostensibly as seeds planted for our own benefit, but also, sadly, to live vicariously through us. By nature we were drawn to books, but likewise our love of them was nurtured heavily.

My dad was a lay scholar. Family legend tells how in the early years of his marriage and as a young working father, he worked his way through Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilisation. The complete set of eleven volumes sat in a long row of fat hardcovers on the bookcase in our sitting room. He would come home from work, sit with the family at the dinner table, and then go into the sitting room by himself to read, while my mother cleared up the meal and put the children to bed. He told me once that he had devised a strategy of sitting in a hardbacked chair, rather than an upholstered one. Fatigue from a long day’s work would inevitably lead him to doze off, but the uncomfortable chair would prevent him from sleeping soundly and he would jerk back awake within a few minutes. A short nap was enough to refresh him sufficiently, and he would then be able to focus on the text for another couple hours.

My dad was a would-be scholar. When enough of his children had grown up and moved out to create a spare bedroom, he lived out the fantasy of owning a gentleman’s study. He built wall-to-wall bookcases of beautiful polished wood, and set an armchair beside them, as well as a desk. Every Sunday he read the New York Times Book Review, to keep his finger on the pulse of the world of ideas. And although he bought many interesting books that had piqued his curiosity, he read them slowly if at all. His study time was diluted by other projects and interests – computers, woodworking, travelling – and perhaps also lack of confidence, fueled by regret.

My dad was a frustrated scholar. His business career in communication systems flourished as the digital age took root, and by the time I was a teenager he was fully embedded in the executive class, responsible for projects at his office that demanded ridiculously long hours and self-subsuming dedication to The Company. The prize he claimed from this deal was the privilege of sending all his children to private schools and to university. My siblings and I all performed well academically, winning scholarships and various honours for our work, and eventually pursuing postgraduate degrees of one sort or another. While he was very proud of these achievements, he was never entirely satisfied. We jumped through our hoops, higher and higher, trying to make him happy with our good grades and our intellectual pursuits – but of course we never could make him happy, not really.

Shortly after I moved to the UK, he was diagnosed with cancer.  The illness lasted for three and a half years, during which time I saw him only a few times, in transatlantic visits. On one occasion he and my mom made a trip to the UK, and we spent one of the days touring Cambridge. We visited the Fitzwilliam Museum and King’s College Chapel; we wandered through college greens and saw the Bridge of Sighs; and we went to the Cambridge University Press bookshop, itself a heritage site. Dad had been enthusiastic about the day’s explorations, but among the books he grew quiet. When we left the shop he stopped a few yards from the door and stood there, still and forlorn. After a moment, he remarked wistfully on all the good books there were to read in the world, all the ideas that people had shared, and said that he wished he had more time. The sadness with which he said this didn’t allude so much to the time remaining in his lifespan, but rather to the time he had lost by denying himself his vocation.

I responded clumsily: heaven will be full of books. To start with, I didn’t believe anything of the kind by that point in my life – but this wasn’t about me. There was a terrible creeping discomfort at the direct allusion to his impending death – the problem with no solution.  And it was awkward that he was delivering such a personal and revealing comment so unexpectedly on the pavement, amidst the bustle of pedestrian traffic. It caught me off guard. He had opened his heart to me – and he received a lame sweep-up job in reply.

My mother overheard our exchange, and added her weight to my remark: yes, heaven would right all the wrongs. Between the two of us, we steered his attention away from the reality of his life and his choices, away from the pain it was causing him.  We all waltzed together in the great dance of denial. He seemed comforted at the time by my reply, but I wonder and doubt if he truly was.

Right now I’m missing him. I’m wanting to forward him the link to Cat’s post, just email it along to wherever and whatever and however he is now that he’s gone. I’m wanting to send him this link to Rob Newman’s poem, The Pub Quiz Champion of the World. And I’m wanting to send him these lyrics to another favourite Freakwater song, called Heaven:

Heaven is for the weak at heart
and those who never are
as smart as me.
But I would trade all that I believe
and keep no trick card up my sleeve
just to know the angels hold you in their arms tonight.

7 thoughts on “On books

  1. Wow. I’m really happy to be able to read your writing again (something that has eluded me now that people don’t write letters anymore). Just as eloquent and precise as I remember. (Margaret Atwood, anyone?)

  2. Well, I was in tears by the end of this. You describe so beautifully the poignancy of the thwarted life and how it ricochets down to the next generation (here your Dad’s life, but it’s such a painfully familiar pattern). I often think hard and soberly about his generation, that of my parents too, who lived at a time and in cultures where jacking in a profession to follow your dreams was close to unimaginable. And of those moments when their mask comes away, often because it’s near the end, and we just don’t know how to respond. So glad that you told this story, and that that post did something to provoke it. x

    • I was in tears too! 😉 What I loved about your post and what made me think so much about him was its reflection on the flipside of academic life, acknowledging the unromantic aspect of it in which there is just as much competition and status negotiation as there is in the business world, and in which the act of reading becomes mired in the drive to acquire and collect.

      In a way, I was raised with books as a false idol and holy grail. I wonder if he would have been willing to consider the kind of stripping-away of that, which you describe in your post. I think on that pavement in Cambridge he may have been well up for it, and if I were there with him now I wonder if I’d have the courage to steer it differently than I did at the time.

  3. Thwarted scholar, lay scholar, would-be scholar, frustrated scholar… The edges of parallel academic universe; the cosmos of self-study.

    The search for knowledge through books has not always been a happy one for your dad. But it has been such an interesting one.. It is fascinating that those who have not enjoyed the rigour and flexibility of academic life see it as a hedonistic pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.. Those who have, know that its direction is not always determined by the would-be scholar alone..

    In my mind’s eye I can see your dad among the books thinking of the lack of time to read them all. It makes me feel close to this man who’s died before I met you. Why, you might ask? It is because I agree with him. None of us have enough time to read all those marvellous books already out there, regardless of when we begin. And that’s before more are written.. It used to make me feel utterly sad but I know I am in good company when it comes to that sentiment. Not regretting but being wistful.. It is wonderful that you’ve had someone who encouraged love of books, sometimes vicariously but also selflessly. It is marvellous that your poignant memories of your dad are so clear. Our memories. The past is a foreign country with its own language and our translation is always done within the context of the present. Carry on writing …

    • Memories indeed. This is an anecdote about him told with a decade of hindsight, using all sorts of personal lenses, shutter speeds, lighting and composition to produce one emotional snapshot. His life was nothing so simple and containable as what I’ve recounted here!

      I feel exactly the same way about all the good books out there and indeed all the good experiences that are foregone simply due to the lack of time to fit it all in. And I agree with you: we are in the best of company! 🙂

  4. Everywhere there are libraries of unread books. My shelves are full of them. Some days, when I am annoyed with myself about my idleness, or frustrated at the thousand and one soulless chores that impinge upon my reading time, their pristine spines admonish me, or so it seems. On those days the floor-to-ceiling walls of books become oppressive; they accuse me of literary pretence, of unnecessary materialism, of wastefulness. The truth is I will never read them all if I live to be a hundred. Even if I did, I would retain only a depressing fraction of what I take in.

    The trick, I believe, is as Cat says; to read ‘enough’ and to be satisfied with enough. On good days I look upon my ranks of colourful spines as old friends. Their patterns and sequences have become very familiar. Among the thousands I can retrieve the one unfailingly. If one were misplaced, swapped for another, I am sure I would know. They all wait patiently to be picked when their time comes. I owe it to myself to read well, to read discerningly, to read thoroughly… but not to read everything.

    If you were to tell me that heaven will be full of books I would not think it lame. I would be consoled and would love you for it.

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