I generally don’t write personal posts on Like Fire, or at least not much beyond the subjectivity of “I like it”/“I disapprove.” But it seems like this time of year, along with all the summing-up and lists and suggestions on ways to spend money, seems to lend itself to a bit of extra introspection. In the past couple of weeks I’ve read two pieces that have lingered with me, both of them on similar themes, and still it took me a while to figure out why.
Confessions of a Book Buyer, by the Los Angeles Times’ book critic, David L. Ulin, gave me a start of recognition with its first sentence: “We have a rule in our house: My wife and I will always pony up for books.” Such a small, simple thing, but at the same time noteworthy, because it’s how I grew up. Ulin continues:
It’s not even a subject of discussion—if either of our kids wants a book, we will buy it, no questions asked. This is equally true of the books we have at home, which are equally available to everyone, regardless of subject matter or degree of difficulty. Whatever else they are, after all, books are gifts (for the mind, the eye, the hand), which makes it downright uncharitable to deny them to anyone.
And it was the same in our house. My father was one of those kids who got out of Borough Park via Brooklyn College and Columbia. He was an anthropology professor who taught and traveled and wrote, and who never for a minute stopped believing in the power of the written word. He was the person who put a book in my hands as soon as I could hold one, and who sat on the floor with me and my alphabet blocks and had me reading by the time I was four. He would always buy me a book if I asked for it, and often when I didn’t—long before I ever formed the concept of building a library, he would pick up odd second-hand finds for me. Some are gone to floods and mold, but some are still on my shelves: a beautiful 1925 Faust with illustrations by by Harry Clarke; a very old and slightly foxed 1932 edition of Thomas de Quincey’s The Confessions of an English Opium Eater (this when I was a reprobate 17-year-old—I’m sure I didn’t know what to make of that); the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo when I finished my first year of art school.
When I was teenaged and pissy I used to fight against what I viewed as his attempts to mold me, but it was too late. He did, and I’m deeply thankful for it now. And much of that had to do with his never saying no—quite possibly being unable to say no—when I asked for a book. Years later, no matter how broke I was, I did the same for my son. Books were the only things he knew he could reliably get out of me with no argument, and I’m happy to say he took complete advantage.
The second piece was Dan Wickett’s tribute to his mother on Emerging Writers Network, A Simple Goodbye. It’s short, sweet, not in the least maudlin:
I cannot remember a birthday or Christmas that I wasn’t given a book by her as my gift. In the rare cases it wasn’t a book, it was money with a note–do not spend this on necessities–buy yourself a book and if you need more, let me know. If there’s a reason I do what I do here at the EWN, some sort of cause and effect, it definitely traces back to my parents, their love of reading, and their taking me to the library every week when I was five years old.
Wickett’s post is a loving thank-you note. And reading it, I realized: It’s not just the end of the calendar year that has me introspective about these things. As the days get shorter and colder it gets harder for the folks who have been hanging on to keep doing so, and sometimes they just can’t. My father died twelve years ago today, and while I can’t think of a single thing in my life I regret, I do lament the fact that he isn’t here to read Like Fire, to call me up once a week and talk about it, to tell me what he liked and point out what I missed. I’m not much of a believer, but I do irrationally hope for his sake and mine that there’s an afterlife, and that it has Internet access.
(Photo of me; my father, Yehudi A. Cohen; and Gumby circa 1965. This is the one and only topless photo I will ever post of myself on this blog or any other, so don’t ask.)