Sunday, June 6, 2010

Book #8: Unpacking Daddy's Library

"When are you going to put together my reading list?" Daddy asked.

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


Claudia Lawrence said...

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Petya K. Grady said...

Hey! I just followed a link that one of my Twitter friends shared and here I am. Love your blog! And I love this particular posting. If your dad is interested, I JUST started an online bookclub. I am calling it The Migrant Bookclub and we are reading books on immigration and expatriation. Not sure if he'd be interested in our reading list, but I think joining a bookclub would be a cool thing for him to do and share the joys of reading with others.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks for your feedback and suggestions!


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.