Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Grandfather's Books

At a meeting of the Richard Hooker Society last fall, I had a conversation with one of the senior scholars of the society, Lee Gibbs, about our shared love of books and of owning a good library. Lee related to me some words of wisdom that his father had imparted to him many years ago, “Don’t ever get rid of your books, they will be your friends in your old age.” Lee told me that he had certainly found this to be sound wisdom.

I am only in my fortieth year, but I certainly know the friendship of books. When we read we are mystically connected with those who have gone before us, who have thought about similar subjects, wrestled with similar issues and problems, who have attained wisdom we can only hope to attain. The most apparent communion (or dissonance) that we share is in the author-reader relationship. There is a conversation of the most intimate sort that happens between the author and reader, a conversation that laughs at death for death cannot silence words on the printed page, resurrected once again on the lips or in the mind of the reader. There is another communion, though, that happens between readers who share the same copy of a printed book. This is the communion that we experience we share books. Remember reading the names on those old library cards (before the advent of computerized circulation technology), and seeing who had checked out the same book as us over the last thirty years? A similar, and even deeper communion is experienced when an antique edition passes through our hands and we see the names inscribed on the front leaf under or beside the latin phrase “ex libris.”

I have a seventeenth century book that has passed through many hands. It is of no great monetary value. It is a puritan tract that I picked up only for its antiquity and subject matter when I was in England in 1995. It passed through successive generations of a single family who each inscribed their names. “Richard Wynne, his boke” reads one such inscription with an seventeenth century date beside it. Other names, possibly related, probably not, adorn that page. I have added my own with a date because it seemed fitting. Antiquarians may squirm here that I defaced such an antique edition, but I assure you, the book is really in quite bad shape. Yet, even if it were not I still would have done it. There is something special about being part of the genealogy of that little obscure book, something sacred.

My paternal grandfather had many books. He must have been a member of various mail order book clubs as his library ranges from the late thirties through his death in 1975 containing books that were clearly special mail-order editions. His library, while not large contained some substantial editions. I remember that it was on a wall in an infrequently used room in their house in the rural Ontario near Parry Sound. The room was always cold as the door was kept closed. My grandmother used the room to cool her baking, so we tended to go into it whenever we were helping her set the table or following behind her for a treat. I seem to remember her brother, an old bachelor, napping on a sofa in there from time-to-time. While the baked goods provided a sort of instant gratification and fulfillment, little did I know that editions from my grandfather’s library would provide life-long sustenance and nourishment.

When my grandfather died in 1975, I was only a lad of five. We knew that he had been sick with cancer. I remember going to stay with my maternal grandparents (who lived close to us in Richmond Hill) when my parents went away at the time of his death for the funeral. What do I remember of him? He was a carpenter and electrician who had a separate little building on their property as a workshop. I recall that he made for my brother Tim and me little toolboxes each to carry our tools in. I still don’t own any tools, but I do have that box. I remember watching him work in this shop with his table saws and drills. I remember the smell of sawdust. And I remember him smoking a pipe. To this day these are the two smells most strongly associated with my early childhood, sawdust and pipe smoke, and both of them evoke memories of this man who lives distantly in the recesses of my childhood memory. I remember a walk with him down the trail that was once part of the Grand Trunk railway which ran past their house, and I remember him picking me a blackberry, the first one I ever tasted. I don’t recall that he was a difficult man, although I’m told he was. I’m glad I don’t remember that. I do remember him sitting in his leather lazy-boy chair with his feet up, smoking a pipe, and reading.

He loved to read. His library was filled with books on all things historical. History was obviously his subject of choice. My mother once told me that when my father first brought her home to meet his parents, she remembered him sitting, with his feet propped up by the stove to keep warm, reading Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. She said he was the most interesting man to talk to because of what he read. He must have seemed quite an anomaly amongst the farmers of the township.

When I grew up into early adulthood and my memories of him were quickly fading, I used to sneak a peek into that room whenever possible and look at those books. There were books on world history, British History, Russian History, Napoleon, the Wars, as well as many books on local history. At this point in my life I had acquired a love of history and a love of reading. I always knew that formal training in reading history would be a part of my education. In my mind I would imagine him reading these books and I began to wonder what he was like, what it would have been like for me to know him as an adult, if he had lived.

My grandmother knew of my fascination with my grandfather’s books, and as I became a young man, she would give me a book from his library on many of my visits. Some of them I read early on, others sat on my shelf for years waiting to be read. When she died in 1997, I was given several other volumes.

When I began reading my grandfather’s books I noticed something particular that all his books had in common, that each page was pressed flat along the spine as it had been read. I began to form an image about how my grandfather handled his books. Obviously, as he turned each page, he intentionally ran his hand from bottom to top, or top to bottom along the opened page, pressing them flat along the spine, leaving a vertical crease. All of his books have this shared feature, from front to back. He read his books thoroughly and carefully. This tiny detail allowed me to feel like I was reading with him, alongside him -- a tangible sign of his presence with me as I read. In reading his copy of a treasured book, I have experienced time and again an intellectual, even mystical communion with my grandfather.

One treasured book was Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, a well-known book that apparently influenced Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis, about the events leading up to and the opening days of the World War I. It was clear that my grandfather was interested in military history as he had several books on the subject. I read the Guns of August during the days of August sometime in the mid or late 1990s. The text moves day-by-day through the month, in my own late twentieth century days of August, I read it day-by-day almost concurrently with the events described in the narrative. On each page I felt not only an intimate connection with the past it animated, but also an intimate connection with my grandfather, the previous reader of that book (the pages so carefully pressed and read).

To this day, I have several of his books on my shelf. There are shelves in several rooms of our house, but his books are in the living room, where I can access them easily, and where their presence calls to mind his presence in my life. Volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s multi-volume History of Civilization are there, as are popular illustrated biographies of James I and of Queen Victoria, and Dostoyevski’s, Anna Karenina. There they sit like old friends, their pages intentionally pressed flat, waiting for a new and fresh reading, for a resurrection of the printed word and the resumption of relationship across time and the page. Right now I am reading his copy of War and Peace. I wish I had that old copy of Shirer’s Rise and Fall; I don’t know whatever became of it. These books are my friends, not only because of the friends now long deceased who put the words on the page, not only because of the many and varied friends that inhabit their pages, but also because of the friend I have found in a man I barely knew, but who will ever be close to my heart and close at hand in the gift of his library, my grandfather, Frank Graves.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves


Laurel Massé said...

When I moved to my current apartment, it was, I think, the 51st or 52nd move in my life. As a child, I did not have to pack the boxes, but I did have to rescue beloved books from the garbage bin, books I supposedly had outgrown.
Outgrow Little Women? The Wind in the Willows? That could never happpen!

Now, as an adult, I have often decided to sell some of my books, or give them away...but invariabley the same books have to be purchased again, because I miss them too much. I can't be reading them all at the same time, but they wait, on the shelf, with infinite patience, for us to have our conversation again.

The Rev. Daniel Francis Graves said...

How true, Laurel. My wife and I both took several course in Russian literature and history (in translation, of course)during our undgrads. When we were in the early days of our marriage (and constrained for space) we purged several shelves and the Russian lit went, thinking we'd never read it again. Here I am reading War and Peace again and wishing I still had my copies of Bulgakov, Turgenev, Chekov, et al. And wishing I had some of those history and culture texts that would remind me of some of the background. A good excuse to head off to the bookstore once again.
Thanks for your comment,

Anonymous said...

Thank you for invitation to read your Reflections.
Just finished 'My Grandfather's Books' and learned something new and surprising (to me) about your grandfather. I rememember your grandfather, some kind of sketchy memories including some around his his workmanship on St Thomas Church pews, seeing him drive his truck with his beloved german shepherd beside him, and a vague but distinct memory of feeling a quietness when around him. it was a comforting quietness. Then a sense of your grandfather that was based on other's recollections and recounted experiences with him. Well you just added a dimension that breathes life into a person's soul and causes me to open that drawer where I have shut your grandfather into a place he obviously does not completely fit. Imagine that!

Thanks for that Dan - its really good to be reminded how precious are people's essences. What a diservice we do when we try to categorize and catalogue the human spirit.

Do you know how important literature and history was to the life of Uncle Joe Hannon also? His entire tv/sitting room was lined with books which he continued to read while in his eighties. Your grandmother may have told you the stories of how his parents and siblings would be looking for him in his youth, usually wanting him to participate in chores and other manly responsibilities, - only to discover him hiding up in a secret recess of the roof , lost in the world of his current book. I always knew about Uncle Joe's love of history and politics but it wasn't unitl I was in my twenties, when I was discovering the worlds of Walt Whitman and the poetry of Shelley and Wordsworth (taken from his bookshelves) that he shared that those too were his books and a part of his adventures into a vivid and colourful world that was so removed from the reality of daily life in Orrville, Ontario.

I'm wondering if your gandfather and uncle joe had any idea of their shared love of history and reading ?....I somehow don't think so ... but isn't it interesting how much closer you may be to another when you think you are destined to be locked in your own private reality?

The other revelation from your Reflections on your ganodfather's books, has to do with the content of your thoughtful and courageous observations, about the connection between the writers and characters of the books and the rapt, fully attentive reader.... Almost an incomparable communion of power and purity when souls connect and are transported through each other!
I used to lament that I felt most at home with dead poets and century old authors! Now I cherish every true connection that enlarges my world and my being!
I remember the thrill in first year philoshopy at university, when the professor asked us to take a position and defend what was more real, the table at the front of the room or a character in a Dicken's novel! Wow, to me that meant, that is actually a question.. and there are others that actually think these thoughts and what a joy to hear them said by others...!
I do go on, I know, but truly thank you for reminding me once again that there are little pockets of subversion always where people refuse to "measure out their lives in coffee spoons" and elevate the human spirit with their presence in our world! YOu are one those people Dan, I hope you have an idea of how special you are. Leslie

The Rev. Daniel Francis Graves said...

Leslie, thank you so much for you heartfelt comment. I do so much appreciate hearing your stories of Uncle Joe. We must get together to reminisce sometime soon.

I enjoyed reading your comments from your philosophy professors... Dickens characters are real, indeed!

Thank you also for your reference to T.S. Eliot. Prufrock is one of my favourite poems. Athena has posted a good reflection on that poem on her blog (the link is in the sidebar of this page).

Much love,