Sermon on Reading

For my father’s birthday a few years ago, I gave him a signed first edition of Brian Jay Jones’ book, Washington Irving: The Definitive Biography of America’s First Bestselling Author. My dad is an American history buff so confirmed that he volunteered for years in period costume at a historic house in Virginia. He can tell you all about the American Revolution and the Civil War. He gets excited about landmarks named after people I don’t even recognize—and I consider myself quite a history buff, too. So when I saw Washington Irving at the book table at last year’s James River Writers Convention, and found out that the biographer was a panelist at the very next discussion thread I’d planned on attending, well…the annual “Dad’s birthday conundrum” was solved. As I predicted, my father was touched by the inscription, consumed Jones’ biography in a single day, and declared he loved it.

So why wasn’t my dad at that convention, getting his own inscription? And why is that beloved, signed first edition now sitting in my house, forgotten under an avalanche of my husband’s gaming magazines and my daughter’s elementary school homework?

No, my dad didn’t die. He’s alive and well, and still consuming nonfiction like a whale shark eating krill. Long story short: Washington Irving joined the Fleet of Regifts—books that have gone from me to my dad, and then come back.

My love affair with books began because of my dad. Many of the best books I’ve ever read were his recommendations. The first books I remember reading were chapter-book versions of his favorite classics, like Treasure Island and The Three Musketeers. My most enduring memory of my father, by sheer weight of repetition in my head, is of him sitting in his recliner, reading. I remember being enchanted by (and frightened of, in equal measure) the cover art of his paperback editions of The Illustrated Man, Heart of Darkness, Casino Royale. I sometimes managed to sneak his books out of the “finished” stack and read them when he wasn’t looking. It’s how I became a confirmed James Bond freak, and why I chased Bradbury and Conrad. They were my gateway into amazing territory, names in bold print on the map of my adolescence and teen years: Tolkien, Lovecraft, Howard, MacLean, King, Butler, Atwood…

I started writing stuff of my own when I was ten. I won awards every few years or so throughout school. And by the time I applied for college, I knew I was a writer whether I earned my living doing it or not. Books weren’t just my escape. They were my life’s blood.

But also about the time I turned ten, the books my dad brought home suddenly became cheaper…much cheaper. No bookstores. Library only, or at most a few tatty paperbacks purchased from a garage sale for a dime a pop. It took me a month of allowances to earn the money for a single paperback from our local used bookstore—and they cost only $1.10 each. I remember after all this time because, like my family, I was sweating every penny…for the next decade.

During those years, my dad’s reading tastes changed, too. Frankly, he became a lot less fun. Character studies became biographies, spy novels became true crime, scifi became “true stories of survival against all odds.” Not to say anything against these genres (or nonfiction in general), because they can be excellent—I can’t imagine a world without Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancebut I found myself getting lonely in the scifi aisle of our library. By the time I was a teenager, Dad was on the other side of the library from me, literally and figuratively.

After that decade of living tight at my parents’ house, all I wanted was out. I applied to only one university because it was the one I wanted that I knew I could afford: a state university, with my tuition covered by scholarships and boasting the best English program in the state. I had more writing awards under my belt by then—including a scholarship I’d gotten just for reading a lot. My nearest competitor had read less than half my book list. I’d put in hard, glorious time with books, reading three and four at a time and changing the stack out twice a week for years, and I wanted more than anything to go write a few of my own.

When my dad asked me what I wanted to major in, I know I looked at him like he’d lost his mind. “Creative writing.”

His response was an anguished look and a plaintive whine. “Oh, Kathryn, not the liberal arts. You’ll never get a job that way.”

I took that the way any teenager would—poorly. Not only was my dad so clueless he couldn’t have guessed my choice of major from the ribbons and certificates decorating my room, but he obviously thought I wasn’t good enough to make a living as a writer. “Two roads diverged in a wood,” indeed. When did fiction become not worth reading? More specifically, when did my fiction become a waste of my father’s time?

Most readers I’ve ever met became one because of someone else—a parent, a beloved aunt or uncle, a grandparent. We readers aren’t just in love with the smell of books. We’re in love with the person who gave reading to us. All my writing and reading comes back to my dad, the person who opened the doors to the life of the mind.

So what do you do when it feels like that person is telling you it’s not worth it?

It’s taken me years to calm that angry teenager back down. My dad wasn’t trying to hurt me. He was trying to help. He’d lived tighter than any human being should have to for nearly a decade at that point. He’d watched the economy tank, struggle, and tank again. Through it all he’d been terrified about his ability to keep food on his family’s table. His ten-year slide out of “fun” reading and into “reality” books was his way of telling me that books weren’t just about fun—that in the real world, publishers might not be clamoring for every half-baked piece of writing that I tossed off on a lazy afternoon. He was warning me that I might have to work even harder for my writing than I worked for my books.

God knows he sure did.

Now, after a further twenty years of scraping by, even biographies are wearing thin for his reading tastes. The heavy lifting in Washington Irvingseveral hundred pages of good research—is too light. Books about surviving “against all odds” are about the only thing that keep his attention now, because that’s what he’s been doing all this time. Surviving. Against all odds. With two kids in tow. And one of them was even more starry-eyed than he used to be.

So for years, he’s been giving his birthday gifts back to me. Because I’m still reading “light” fare. Because I’m still writing. Because somehow, regifting his books to me is a way of keeping our lines of communication open. We’re still across the library from each other, but the books can whisper our messages back and forth.

They’re saying, Thanks for the gift.


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