The first word that comes to mind when thinking of my father is the word “book”. Or rather “BOOKS!”
Books were part of who he was.
My father was a voracious reader from a very young age. He read everything he could get his hands on. Almost all the birthday gifts he ever asked for, from his Bar-Mitzvah and all the way up to his 85th birthday, were books.
These books were rarely works of fiction. My father had an insatiable curiosity about the world, – he wanted books that gave him information, that analyzed events and examined the processes that led to these events. These were reference books he needed for his work as a historian (and many books that had no bearing on his work – he was just interested in the topic) biographies of the people who made history, a variety of dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases and more.
There were always several books on his nightstand. He would read several books at once along with the three daily newspapers he read and the magazines he subscribed to.
Books didn’t have to be read from cover to cover – they were there to be at your fingertips whenever you needed to read or reread the relevant parts. My father was puzzled and dismayed by Wikipedia – he felt that books and encyclopedias must be written the way he wrote the three books that he published – products of painstaking, methodical research conducted by specialists in their field.
My father had his own unique system for unofficial “field research”. He would talk to every taxi driver, waiter, nurse, hospital orderly or falafel seller he ever met, questioning them about where they came from. He would amaze them with his extensive knowledge of towns/cities and regions around the world, whether it was Eastern Europe, Iran or the United States, or his familiarity with Arab clans and Druze history. But he was never trying to show off, my father always wanted to know more about local life, what was that person’s personal perspective of life there in the past and in the present. He found it impossible to understand how a person could go off to a weekend at a B&B on a Kibbutz or a small town abroad and come home unable to report on the number of people who live there and what their sources of income are.
If it so happened that my father had not heard of a place – well, perhaps it was time to get another book!
For a significant part of my childhood, books were our family’s main possession.
Naturally, my father gave books as birthday gifts too. Our sons received Atlases of explorers, books about inventions and Greek mythology for children. I can’t recall how old they were when they got the book about breaking The Enigma code, but the one on how the alphabet evolved tied in nicely with the process of learning to read.
Interestingly enough, the one place my father tried to get people to look beyond books was in his history classes. He always tried to get his students to see that history was not a page in a book but was a “live” thing populated by real people, who influenced history and related events according to their own perspectives.
One beloved strategy of his was to secretly arrange with two (or three) students to suddenly burst out “fighting” (with a bit of theatrical play acting if possible) in the middle of a lesson without any warning. Then he would ask the whole class to describe what they had just witnessed. The students discovered that though they had all witnessed the same event, their accounts of the event varied! This was an eye opener for them and a good introduction to many a lesson.
Guest speakers were commonplace in his college lessons – my father brought in dozens of well-known people who shaped local history. He set up a video-recording project, to document these interviews for future generations, as he was acutely aware of how the window of opportunity for interviewing these people was closing fast. He took his classes on field trips – putting history into a visual context.
On my father’s 86 birthday he didn’t ask for any books nor did he get any.
Although my father took his last breath at the end of August (two months after his birthday), I began mourning months earlier, when Alzheimer had claimed his ability to read. The father I had always known was no longer there.
And now we are left with his library. He “pruned” it several times during his lifetime, there are much fewer books than there ever were before. Nonetheless, we are still dealing with several thousand.
Several thousand – yet I’m devoting a great deal of energy in finding good homes for individual books. Homes where the books would be welcomed. One history teacher at the school where I teach agreed to come – he took about 20 books. I’ve brought a few to other teachers and to the school library. Another teacher at my school likes biographies in English and was pleased with the five books I first brought her. She didn’t want the next 20 I brought, so I donated them to our wonderful “readers-for-readers” corner in our local library. There are lots of English speakers here, I saw that the books disappeared quickly. Other books that were written for the general public, not scholars, are slowly going there as well.
I don’t know if I’ve even donated 100 books yet, it has hardly made a dent on the shelves. Scholarly reference books are harder to donate (not sell, donate!) than one thinks – libraries are concerned with space and so much is now available online.
But I’m not yet ready for drastic measures in clearing out books. Going over the bookshelves, picking out certain books for certain people does something positive for me.
I guess I’m mourning one book at a time.