For the love of books!

I’m sure there is such a thing as fulfilling lives, without books. I’m equally sure I’d want no part of any of them. Various narratives I’ve read over the years see learning from books (“book learning” being the often said with distain expression) as some kind of sheltered, limiting, life, as if the mighty band of bookworms worldwide spend their lives incarcerated (without mercy) in reading chairs, no doubt in a windowless rooms.

A voice inside my head cries out, “That’s a lot of hooey!”

I could not live without books in my life may not be a literal truth for me, but it comes damned close.

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My father at 100

If you are lucky in life, blessed might be the better word, you’ll have the experience of someone loving you completely simply because you are you. Someone with whom you can be yourself safely all the time. My father was that someone for me. He was and is the greatest gift my life has ever given me. If ever a human deserved a long life, it was my father. He died Saturday, August 16, 1969, at age 55; I was 15. When he died my ability to feel safe in the world died with him. It did not return until a few years of sobriety were tucked under my belt. I’d give up the rest of my life in the blink of an eye to hug him one more time.

My father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann, was born Friday, February 20, 1914, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Next Thursday would have been his 100th birthday.  I had hoped to drive the 400-mile round-trip next Thursday to visit his grave in Graceland Memorial Park in Kenilworth, New Jersey, but my financial realities will not let me do so. He would be the first to tell me not to worry about it. He is, however, always with me. Some years after his death it occurred to me that death does not take the all of someone away from us. My father is with me all the time. His presence in my life is alive and well.

And there’s more. There is a large tree next to his grave. Some years after he’d died I was standing by his grave. It occurred to me that his body had begun to feed the soil and the soil feeds the tree and so the scattered of small twigs and branches the tree shed took on special meaning for me. I gather some up twigs and gather more every time I go. By having the twigs near me or on my person my soul says part of my father is with me. On very rare occasions over the years I’ve given one of these twigs to someone I love who has, because they are who they are, arrived at a sacred place in my heart.

My father taught English at Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was a veteran of World War II, serving in the Army’s 20th Armored Division, one of three U.S. Army divisions to take part in the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp located about 10 miles from Munich. I did not learn about this until after he died. He never talked about it.

He was also my best friend. We built a tree house together, stayed in a cabin on Stokes Forest, New Jersey together, read books together. Once, at my pleading, he agreed to accept the non-dancing part of Herr Drosselmeyer in the Orange County Ballet Theatre’s production of the Nutcracker in which I danced the role of the Nutcracker Prince. He did beautifully and received wonderful reviews. One said his Drosselmeyer was the suave master of legerdemain. My mother gave him a box of matchbooks with those words embossed on the cover. He was little-boy happy handing them out to his colleagues.

My father also gave me the gift of reading. When I was about nine or 10 I went into his room. He was sitting behind his desk working on something. Behind him was a wall full of books. I said, “I’m not a reader like you and Mommy.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I can’t finish any of the books I start.”

“What makes you think you have to finish them”?” I was surprised by his response and it showed. “You’re thinking of school assignments. We’re talking about reading. Let me ask you, don’t you think the author has something to do with keeping you interested?”

I nodded.

“Okay then. Tell you what. Grab 10 books that perk your interest, forget page numbers, and read them until they don’t interest you anymore.”

Suddenly and gloriously the world of reading was mine. The first adult book I ever read was The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell. I still have the copy from my father’s library on my shelf. To this day reading is one of my greatest loves and, when times get tough, refuges in life.

I loved and love my father my whole wide world. He loved and I suspect loves me the same.

Happy Birthday, Daddy. I miss you.

Books read in 2013

1) “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” by Saul Bellow

2) “Ravelstein,” by Saul Bellow

3) “Bunner Sisters,” by Edith Wharton

4) “The Dean’s December,” by Saul Bellow

5) “Morte D’Urban,” by J.F. Powers

6) “A Theft,” by Saul Bellow

7) “The Bellarosa Connection,” by Saul Bellow

8) “Teeth, Dying & other matters,” by Richard G. Stern

9) “Tales of Grabowski,” by John Auerbach

10) “The Actual,” by Saul Bellow

11) “A Father’s Words,” by Richard Stern

12) “Other Men’s Daughters,” by Richard Stern

13) “A Widow for One Year,” by John Irving

14) “Natural Shocks,” by Richard Stern

15) “Stitch,” by Richard Stern

16) “Wise Blood,” by Flannery O’Connor

17) “Golk,” by Richard Stern

18) “My Life as a Man,” by Philip Roth

19) “Zuckerman unbound,” by Philip Roth

20) “Anatomy Lesson,” by Philip Roth

21) “The Prague Orgy,” by Philip Roth

22) “Framley Parsonage,” by Anthony Trollope

23) “Scoop,” by Evelyn Waugh

24) “The Moviegoer,” by Walker Percy

25) “The Counterlife,” by Philip Roth

26) “The Last Gentleman,” by Walker Percy

27) “The Facts,” by Philip Roth

28) “The Adventures of Augie March,” by Saul Bellow

29) “Patrimony,” by Philip Roth

30) “The Plot Against America,” by Philip Roth

31) “Sabbath’s Theater,” by Philip Roth

32) “Half a Life,” by V.S. Naipaul

33) “Staggerford,” by Jon Hassler

34) “American Hunger,” by Richard Wright

35) “Charles Dickens: Volume One,” Edgar Johnson

36) “The Staggerford Flood,” by Jon Hassler

37) “Jude the Obscure,” by Thomas Hardy

38) “The Great Dissent,” by Thomas Healy

39) “Eclipse,” by John Banville

40) “The Headmaster’s Dilemma,” by Louis Auchinloss

41) “The Rector of Justin,” by Louis Auchinloss

42) “Richard Wright: The Life and Times,” by Hazel Rowley

43) “Thornton Wilder: a life,” by Penelope Niven

44) “The Winter of Our Discontent,” by John Steinbeck

45) “Rex Stout: a biography,” by John McAleer

46) “The Idiot,” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Gift of Reading

Somewhere, damned if I know where given that on some fronts I have the organizational skills of a tree stump, I have a shirt that reads, So Many Books, So Little Time. So true.

Frankly, I can’t and don’t want to imagine life without books. I am utterly baffled by those who don’t read books. No doubt there are joys they have found in life that are foreign to me, or joys that I simply don’t understand. Car races for one. Millions get enormous joy from them so I am glad they are there; I like seeing people happy. But when I try to watch them, the cars going round and round  again and again and again and again…all I can do is shrug and think, Well, at least they won’t get lost.

When I am, as I like to say, without book, meaning I don’t have a book I’m reading in life (a rare thing), I really am like a fish out of water. My life is out of alignment. Hell, I’m out of alignment. On edge and physically uncomfortable throughout the day, I am swept up in a kind of anxiousness. When, finally, I find a book that I can develop a relationship with,  an enormous sense of relief sweeps over me.  Much the same kind of relief, my dopey mind imagines, that someone lost at sea feels when they finally reach the safety of land.

Reading has been my refuge for many, many years. When I was homeless as a teen, I would go into drugstores or five and dimes and steal a paperback off one of those wire racks that always screech when you turn them. This way, alone at night, or fighting for warmth or dealing with hunger, tucked away in a basement or abandoned building somewhere, I had a world other than my own I could visit.

It was my father who gave me the whole wide world of books, the never-ending always-present adventure of reading. He was in his room one day working at his desk. Behind him was a ceiling to floor bookshelf filled with books. I think a wall full of books is visually more beautiful than any painting I’ve ever seen.   “I’m not a reader like you and Mommy,” I announced.

He set his pencil down, leaned back in is chair, gently smiled, and said, “What makes you say that?”

Well, every time I try and read one of these books I can’t finish them.”

And then he said the most remarkable thing. “What makes you think you have to finish them?”

I was floored. “Aren’t you supposed to finish them?”

No. You’re thinking school assignment. We’re talking about reading. Let me ask you something, don’t you think the author has some responsibility to keep you interested?”

Sure.”

Okay then, here’s what you do,” he gestured at the books behind him. “Pick ten books that perk your interest and read them until you lose interest. Don’t look at page numbers and don’t worry about finishing them. One day you’ll look up and you’ll have finished a book.”

I was free! The world of books was mine! I grabbed ten books, even some I wasn’t sure I was interested in but wanted to see what was inside them anyway, and brought them to my room. To this day, if I lose interest in a book I put it back on the shelf and move on.

By the way, the first book I finished only weeks after my father’s advice was a novel called The Folded Leaf  by William Maxwell. It’s a great book. And there’s lots more.