The first books that ever meant anything to me were the ragged pickings from my parents’ past libraries: the sun-stained spines exiled from one house’s attic to another’s basement, moldering in big boxes until someone decided to read them. The first books that ever meant anything to me were not read by me, but to me. My mother would sit on my bed, back against the headboard and legs spread across the plaid coverlet. I would wriggle under the covers beside her and lay my head on her shoulder. The light from my bedside lamp gave every yellowed page its own fuzzy glow. The stegosaurus at the base of the lamp reared its head with curiosity towards the nightly selection, whether it be Madeline or Babar the Elephant or a volume from our extensive archives of the Berenstain Bears books. At first, I just listened. But before long, I was called upon to sound-out single sentences and, soon after, entire pages. My mother corrected my mistakes, nudging me towards better pronunciations and filling in the words I missed. Even after my mistakes dwindled and I read with singular authority, my mother lingered. I wonder just how long it had been since she’d heard the words of her favorite childhood books in the voice of another.
My father rarely read to me as a kid. When he filled in for my mom, it was never the same. One ritual was traded for another. Just before dinner, I’d join my father in his study. He’d sit in his big chair and I would sprawl across the couch. We’d share the light of a single lamp. He’d ask me what I was reading and I’d show him. He’d nod his head in appreciation. Scanning the lines slowly and turning the pages with care, he’d read my young adult books—which I thought were too simple for adults like him—with the same attention and intensity he brought to his big volume of Montaigne that I was sure held the key to all the things he said that I did not understand.
I aspired to his tastes and began retracing his steps. I started with mass-market paperbacks of T.R. Pearson and Carson McCullers. These were books from my dad’s medical residency—read in five or ten minute scraps during the one break on a 12-hour shift or the half-awake moments between when his scrubs came off and his head hit the pillow. When those were gone, I burned through the slim volumes of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Eugene O’Neil. The still and quiet of my father’s study countered the boisterous, alcohol-soaked catastrophe rumbling across the pages. To the pencil markings my father had long ago scratched across the pulp, I added my own notes and underlines. These scribbles were a signature that marked these books as mine and mine alone. I rescued these books from their worn boxes and lined them up neatly on my still sparsely populated shelves.
Within a week, my assembled cadre had broken ranks. A couple books had slipped away and left the others toppled on top of each other. That evening, I discovered the fugitive novels in my father’s study—three of them stacked on his desk and one in his hand. In the other hand, he held a ballpoint pen, preparing to make a note.
All the books that have stuck around my house long enough have ended up marked, but none of them have attained the layered scrimshaw which weaves around the words of my father’s old books. You can see my father and I twirling across the page: our notes huddle together and our intersecting pen strokes get tangled up like fishing line. Here and there, he’s added exclamations to what I’ve noted or has provided a snarky dissenting opinion. But when I open the books my dad and I have shared, I read his annotations and I hear his voice. I hear it as if he were next to me, guiding me through his favorites for the very first time.