Old books, old memories, new insights

A crowded bookshelf leads to hard choices, as one has to decide what to keep and what to give away. The same seems to be true of life in general.
Photo by Carl Peters

There was a pile on the desk, next to the desk, and under the desk.

With my wife’s working at a new career in education as well as on a second master’s degree, and my studying theology as a candidate for the permanent diaconate, we have accumulated quite a bit of reading material, both required and suggested.

The accumulation of curricular acuity had become so burdensome that, after my wife foundered over volume two of “Faith of the Early Church Fathers,” edited by William A. Jurgens, she said it was time to make some space on the bookshelf.

In order to make some room for the newly acquired readings, I would have to make some hard decisions about which books to keep and which to give away (because, of course, one can never throw away a book; one must pass along a book to a worthy reader). I have quite a few books on a number of bookshelves throughout our home, so this would be no easy task.

I’ve often heard people ask why one would want to keep a book, after all, once Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” catches the fish, it still gets eaten by sharks no matter how many times it is read. However, these are more than just books — they are memories.

Like the one summer I was working data entry at Strawbridge and Clothier in Philadelphia. During my lunch break I would walk over to Independence Mall with a slice of something from a side street shop, and sit reading Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” From time to time I would look up from the pages of Raskolnikov’s dilemma and watch the people pass by — the businessmen and women scurrying from meeting to meeting and the tourists with their pointing and posing and street entertainers wowing the midday crowds —then go back to my reading.

Or on those days that were too rainy to sit outside, I would walk down to the train station below with a dusty old copy of “Look Homeward, Angel” by Thomas Wolfe, listening to the local trains screeching to stops and express trains whizzing by as people came and went in a blur and wondering where they were all from, what did they all do, what were their lives all about, so many faces each with their own dreams and hopes.

These are fond memories for me brought back by each volume on my shelf. My books are not just stories, they are touchstones of my life.

I started my task along the bottom shelf where I keep the taller, more slender books such as a French language workbook I’ve been holding onto since college because I tell myself one day I’ll get back to improving my French. Je suis un optimiste! Also on that bottom shelf, collecting dust, are a number of yearbooks, a couple mine, a couple my wife’s, my mother’s and my father’s. I slipped out my father’s, sat cross-legged on the bed, and began leafing through.

It’s not as though this was the first time I’d looked through my father’s yearbook, but this time, for some reason, I focused less on the hilarious hairstyles, archaic outfits, and funny poses from the class of 1953 than I did on the comments his classmates wrote by their pictures along with their signatures and sentiments of “best of luck,” “much success” and “happy future.”

Most of the people saw my dad as a “sweet” or “terrific guy” and a “swell fellow.” There were several people who stated that my father was “a lot of fun,” and just more than a few referred to “that crazy Math class.” One Barbara R. Schwartz wrote for my father not to “forget that hayride,” hmmm, while a certain Earle R. Booye reminded my dad to “be good and stay sober.” I wondered if he was being ironic.

I then noticed how many of my father’s classmates referred to him as a “crazy guy” and “crazy kat” and one even went so far as to refer to my father as “one of the craziest guys I know.”

Crazy? My father? Crazy? No. My father was reserved, quiet. He did not care to socialize often. He preferred to stay home, work around the house, go out on Saturday mornings with his son cutting wood, watch his garden grow in the summer. He was not at all the man I saw described in his yearbook.

What had happened? Did he just one day say it’s time to stop being outgoing, time to stop being adventurous, time to stop having fun? I realize that most of us mature and no longer act the way we did in high school, but it was more than that. There didn’t even seem to be a trace of how he was described in this book. Where were the remnants of that swell, crazy kat of a fellow?

And then I thought that maybe my father had to make a little room on his bookshelf. Maybe through his time in the Army, his work in sales, his start and growth of a family, his purchase of a home, his changes in employment, working long hours so his wife could stay home with the children, the birth of a special needs child, the cancer diagnosis of his wife — maybe he had to sift through the volumes of his life, and had to clear a shelf of his own to make room for new books that began piling up by his desk, some that he may have wanted, and others he certainly did not, but knew he had to accept.

I suppose there are times when we all need to make a little space on our bookshelves. In order to accept God’s will in our lives, sometimes we might have to give away a book or two to make a little room for what God wants from us.

Pope Benedict XVI tells us that “true joy is not merely a passing state of mind or something that can be achieved with the person’s own effort; rather it is a gift, born from the encounter with the living Person of Jesus and, making room within ourselves, from welcoming the Holy Spirit who guides our lives.” We must make room for the Holy Spirit to find true joy in our lives, no matter how difficult it can sometimes be.

As I sat there on the bed, paging through the yearbook, the back of my neck began to feel warm, hot even. I slowly turn around to see my darling wife, eyebrow raised, sneer on lip. “I thought you would have made more progress by now,” she said.

I smiled and slid my father’s yearbook back on the shelf between her yearbook and mine. I then went back to my task of sifting through the books, hoping to finish within the next month or so.

Dean P. Johnson teaches English in Camden and is a member of Mary Mother of Mercy Parish, Glassboro.