A hush fell over the kitchen. He'd been asking me about this for weeks now, and wasn't it the least I could do? After all, I'd taken his handouts during not one, not two, but three degrees in English Literature.
Recently retired, Daddy had decided to take up reading for reasons that were characteristically quantitative. The house was crammed with novels, memoirs and anthologies that my mom and I had been reading all our lives and their sheer number had convinced my dad that there must be something to this reading thing.
Now that he was no longer building steel plants, it was time to roll up his sleeves and delve into the world of literature.
"Why don't you just go online?" I said. "Google 'reading.' A bunch of lists should come up."
"That's no good." His cheeks hardened. "Those lists are impersonal - based on polls or the whims of some critic who doesn't even know me. I want a list that's just for me."
I rolled my eyes. With everything else on my mind, did I have time for this?
Then I recalled an essay I'd read in grad school, Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library." What drives someone to read and collect books, Benjamin suggests, is anything but rational:
"I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth. This is the childlike element which in a collector mingles with the element of old age. For children can accomplish the renewal of existence in a hundred unfailing ways."
Despite Benjamin's mystical language, his point is simple, I think. He's saying that what draws a person to one book over another cannot be explained purely in terms of the book's reputation. Rather, the reader yearns to connect on some deeply personal, childlike level with the world in miniature that the novel brings to life imaginatively. This is a matter of the novelist being able to predict - almost magically - your idiosyncratic fantasies and wishes that go back to your earliest memories and desires.
It's a beautiful coincidence when reader and book unite in this way, the beginning of a lifelong relationship.
So my old man wanted a reading list. But what did I know about his earliest memories and unconscious drives?
Photo from: here