Saturday, April 11, 2015

Reading lists and a love of books

My father was an avid reader from the time he was a young child. He kept a list of the books that he had read, and they were not few. The first book on his list was Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero by the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz; it was first published in 1895 in Poland as a serialized novel in several Polish newspapers. In 1896, it came out in book form and was subsequently translated into more than fifty languages (according to Wikipedia). My father would have read it in English since he did not speak Polish (he did however speak Italian, and studied Latin and Greek as well). He did not annotate his book lists, so I don’t know why he started with Quo Vadis; perhaps his father suggested this book to him. This was followed by Fortitude: Being a True and Faithful Account of the Education of an Adventurer by Hugh Walpole, published in 1913. And so on, until the last book that he read shortly before his death in 1985, which was Cal by Bernard MacLaverty, which came out in 1983. By the time he died, he had read close to a thousand books. It was not clear from his book lists when he started to keep them, but I’m guessing he started when he was around twelve years old. Since he was sixty-seven years old when he died, that means that in the space of fifty-five years of reading, he read about seventeen books per year on average. Many of the books were loaned from the Warner Public Library in Tarrytown; both my parents were frequent users of the library.

It struck me while going through my father’s book lists that he was already interested in organizing and systematizing books as a child, in preparation for his career as a librarian. He did not know that he was to become a librarian when he was twelve years old, but the signs were already there when you take a look at his lists.

Both he and my mother loved to read, and they instilled their love of books in us children. My mother did not keep extensive lists of the books she read like my father did, but both of them encouraged us to do so. So I have done so, all these years. I started keeping a list when I was around twelve years old, like my father. The first book on my list is The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith, which was first published in 1956.

My father read widely—fiction, non-fiction, biographies, history, Catholic literature, and children’s literature. He shared what he read with me especially, since I would often sit at the dinner table with him in the evenings after dinner and discuss what he and I were reading. As I got older, we would often read the same book, sometimes at the same time, more often right after the other person had read it. We suggested books for each other; my father would cut out book reviews from the newspaper to share with me, or we would find a few books of interest in the weekly supplement The NY Times Book Review. As I get older, it strikes me that growing up in my family was a special experience. I learned to love books and to love discussing them. Nothing makes me happier than when I can sit and discuss the book I’m reading or have read with someone (I feel the same about movies). Some people would call it doing ‘post-mortems’ and don’t like to do this. In fact, most people I know don’t discuss the books they read. I respect that. We all have our own reasons for why we read and for reading the books we read. As long as the world continues to read, we’ll keep evolving and growing as human beings. That’s what is most important. But I’m glad I have my father’s reading lists, because as I peruse them, I see that we have a lot of the same tastes in literature. And that makes me feel close to him. In a future post, I will list some of the books he read as a teenager and young adult, and will include some of my own.  

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