Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My father's books

I miss my father's home. Although Daddy had lived in Jamaica from 1997 until he died, and I only lived with him there for a year, his home was always my home. It was unpretentious and very comfortable. There were always his hundreds of books on shelves scattered around the house and in his study. His copies of Nabokov and Naipaul novels, his collection of plays and poetry from Borges to Walcott, Tony Mc Neil to Robert Frost, his biographies of famous writers, thinkers and politicians; he had books on the Mayans and Greeks, the world wars and the Nazis. They lined the shelves of every book case of every home I've ever known him to live in. They were always organised by genre and then alphabetically by author. Just like a library, even though he would never have called what he had a library. He would have thought that pretentious. They were just his books which went with him wherever he went.

The bookshelf in my Dad's study.

When my sister and I were sorting through his books after he died, I started considering them a 'collection'. But then, that's not the right word. A 'collection' suggests something that's a deified entity, that is stored carefully and rarely touched - revered for what it represents rather than its actual content and meaning. Daddy's books were very much intrinsic to his creative life. He read constantly. His favourite novels he read several times. And most of his favourite poems he knew by heart. All of his books bore the signs of having been read - they had faded and curling pages, many of them were covered in his annotations and underlinings. Some of them had ancient library stamps and the names of other owners scribbled onto their pages.

Even though no doubt over the years he lent out many books that were never returned, he still lent his books to friends and students, often recommending a particular story or poem that would reveal some truth that was specific to the person to whom he was lending the book.

The way he was with his books was exactly how he how he approached his life. The books weren't precious objects to him. They were only useful in-so-far as they were well-written or interesting. He didn't care a fig if he owned books that were rare or autographed. They were what he used everyday, to learn, to relax, to delight, inspire and to educate.

When my father found out that he was dying, all he did differently was to eat more ice cream and cake. He was exactly himself - writing, reading, teaching, sailing when he could, laughing, agonising: living. He told my sister and I that until you die you're alive. I think his one indulgence was to tell someone, "Fuck you, I'm dying!" when they suggested he stop smoking. His life was not more precious to him than his ability to live it.

Dad's books are all over the place now. They will no longer line the bookshelves of his home. They belong to me and to Saffrey. To his dearest friends and to strangers. There's a part of me that's confused about the dilemma nostalgia creates. Do we keep everything because it belonged to him once? But then, that would be to make those things exactly what he never did: relics, 'libraries' and 'collections'. What's the point of keeping an autographed copy of a shitty book, when there would be less space for something you might actually want to read?


  1. Mariel, your dad was right. Why keep books in a pristine condition if you can't enjoy them? It shows what he valued was far more important than money...something worth far more. Continue to enjoy his books too and he'll be happier for it.

  2. Mariel - Let the books that you love, because your father loved them, be the ones you line your own shelves with. And the others? Send them out into the world for others to read and love. My thoughts, my sentiment only - and also what I've done with my friend's and family's books once they've gone on.

  3. Hi Karin - my sister and I made a huge edit when we went through the books at first. I don't really think I can manage another edit of the books by me - not yet at least. I like having them at home. They're very comforting.