Monday, June 16, 2008

The Map of Love: Let Us Now Speak of Fathers

Figure 1. one of my father's many first editions [click on picture for price tag]


I know I am a day late for Father's Day, but am hoping I will be forgiven. I have been home in Washington, DC for several reasons and am on my way back to South Carolina today and wanted to note, here, and publicly for the first time, how blessed I am in my father, a crazed maniac of a bibliophile, lover of poetry, Greekophile, peripatetic traveler, and the unofficial mayor of wherever he goes. For most of our lives [well, mine anyway], I think our fathers mainly annoy and maybe even embarrass us. I can say that, for most of my life, I liked to pretend that I could not comprehend, nor did not remember, how it was that I ended up in English studies. Suffice to say, my adult self would not recognize my teenage and twenty-something self, who mainly distinguished herself as a habitual pot smoker, skipper of classes, and cultivator of the worst company possible. In the early 1990s, when my partner was working as a technical writer for GTE Spacenet, she discovered that one of her colleagues had gone to high school with me, and when she informed her that I was working on a Ph.D. in medieval studies [which Ph.D., I might add, took almost ten years and included "dropout" periods where I worked as a gardener and even as a clerk at Target--seriously], my recollection is that this colleague spit out her coffee and started laughing uncontrollably. As an undergraduate I went to a university with open admissions and earned in my first three semesters grade point averages of 1.8, 1.6, and 1.4, respectively. I spent most of my time in mosh pits and stuck safety pins pretty much everywhere on my body.

Figure 2. my father's study

As silly as it sounds, English classes saved my life, but suffice to say, I would have never attributed that to my father's influence, although, pace the photographs here, how could I have not known otherwise? Youth is truly wasted on the young. I used to think my father's book collecting was a little crazy [I still do on occasion] and I was also mortified when he would dramatically read Yeats or Whitman or Lowell at the dinner table when I had friends over. And because, as I have shared here before, my father is manic depressive with occasional episodes of extreme "religious-type mania," let's just say that there are periods in my life I never want to relive again, although they still happen. But perhaps one reason I will always be glad for my father's over-the-top passions are the books and first-edition volumes of poetry he has collected over the years which now, all together in various rooms of the house and overflowing the bookshelves, are a wonder to behold. Over the years, my father has kept secret post office boxes in various post offices all around the city, thinking that he is fooling my mother with his purchases. But because he eventually wants to display everything he has, the secret has never been a secret. My mother used to beg my father to rein in the book collecting, but resistance has proved futile. Which brings me to an admission of something I have never told my father: when I was working at the University of North Carolina in Asheville as an adjunct asst. professor about five years ago, and I was really broke, I brought my first-edition copy of Yeats' The Tower--a gift from my father--to The Captain's Bookshelf, an antiquarian bookstore that purchases and sells rare books. I was hoping for a few hundred dollars and when the owner came back from the back room where he has his computer, he sat down in front of me and asked me if I realized what I had. The book, he said, would sell on the market for about ten thousand dollars and he would give me eight thousand. I took the money and have regretted it ever since.

Figure 3. one of my father's many bookshelves

For Father's Day we let my father go to see Richard Sheridan's The School for Scandal at the Folger by himself [terrible, I know, but the rest of were too exhausted to accompany him] and he almost did not make it because we all forgot that it was Gay Pride day on the Capitol. He regretted that he could not attend the parade. At my sister's second "gay wedding," my father read C.P. Cavafy's "Ithaca." That is my father. Let us now praise fathers.


Karl Steel said...

Lovely post, EJ, and great photos.

Karma said...

Very nice post. Somewhere I have a picture of me in high school with a paint-marker hangover, Flock of Seagulls hair, lots of bracelets made of paper clips and beer can tabs, and a copy of Cavafy translations atop my unread Algebra book. I passed two whole classes that year. My father was much less understanding than yours :-)

Eileen Joy said...

Karma: thanks for the comment. My father and mother have [and had] a unique approach to parenting: they never let us know what they were really thinking. As regards our various acts of juvenile deliquency, they were so mellow that the word "mellow" does not even begin to sum it up. They let us do everything and secretly prayed we would turn out all right. But they just never believed in telling us what to do, or not do. Thank god.

irina said...

Ok, now I'm convinced, we really are soulmates.

When I was sixteen I went to Romania, and when I stepped into my late grandfather's study, I understood so many of my obsessions. He not only had his bookshelves filled with books, but they were two layers deep (and with books on top of each layer), just as mine were. He had boxes of pens and pencils of all sorts of colours, just as I did. And he had tons of little notebooks half-filled with phrases and vocabulary in foreign languages... just as I did. I stepped into this one room, and suddenly I made *sense*.

When I was a teenager, and I went on a bookbuying spree, I'd come in the house and leave the bag of books near the door before I went to greet my family. The idea was to hide them so I could pick them up later, without them noticing how many more books I'd brought into the house. My grandmother noticed this, and told me how my grandfather would come home and keep the book he'd just bought hidden behind his back as he kissed her.

meli said...

what a wonderful post - thank you! makes me think of my own father, who recently visited and infuriated me no end, but is original, odd, wonderful, good-hearted.

Eileen Joy said...

Well, Irina, I was wondering when you would *finally* be convinced, but do remember that I am indiscriminate with my soulmates, or so I have been accused. Your story about your grandfather is lovely. My relationship to my father's bibliophilia is a bit more complicated--perhaps because it was too close to me--and I have spent much of my life actively shucking and re-selling large portions of my library. I never want to have too many books although, at any given moment, I have quite a few, but I am also always selling them off/giving them away, etc. So I always have roughly the same number of books--most of them borrowed from libraries--and whenever I visit scholar- and writer-friends, like Karl and his wife Alison, I marvel at the books--so many! I don't really collect books; I collect persons [haha].

irina said...

Okay, Eileen, we're totally not soulmates anymore. Are you trying to tell me you actually care about *people* more than books? Sounds fishy to me.

Actually, it's really gotten to be a disease with me. I can't let go of books. Which means that my father, who is the guardian of my collection, has twice moved about 2000 books. They now have a home in his basement. The other 1400 or so are with me in New York. The rest of the collection is scattered in Bucharest, Berlin, Konstanz, New Haven, and other parts of Toronto. Do you know how annoying it is to want to read a book but know that your copy is in *Bucharest*? And this is how I wind up having doubles.

I've always admired people who can stay mobile, and just keep a compact collection of literary flowers. And I have gotten a little better at travelling -- that is, I have all the necessary German libraries bookmarked, and check before I leave if they have the books and journals I think I'll need. But I love the physical aspect of the books I own much too much to do anything like a serious culling.

(That said, I should add that I'm totally not prissy about handling the books. They get to go everywhere dirty and messy, their spines get broken, they get read in the bathtub and their pages wrinkle, and after I had a prof who specialized in marginalia, I started writing on the things too. So no first editions or fancy books for me -- I like the ones that get old.)

Eileen Joy said...

Irina: I'm glad to hear you're not prissy about handling your books. Mine have wine stains, coffee stains, and sometimes I find old bus and train tickets in them, etc. Once, in my first-edition copy of Nigel Nicholson's "Portrait of a Marriage" [about his parents Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West] I found a cocktail-stained napkin from Mr. Henry's on Pennsylvania Avenue [Wash, DC], from about 1985, on which I had written, "I love this book."

I myself am very mobile and rely a LOT on libraries here and there for my reading & research materials. And I have been known to cart a 100 or so books in my car [since where I am in S. Carolina cannot even be considered close to anything like a "real" library].

But are you sure we are no longer soulmates even though we have that Borges/Ionesco/Cortazar connection? How sad.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Beautiful post, Eileen.

As for books -- ah, the joy that's there. I'm going to sneak out of my parents's house today on behalf of books: I'm claiming a "administrative/dissertation day" away from the ZSR library to recover from a trip to Eastern NC, but I think reading this post will necessitate a trip to the used book store over by WFU. In college, I was the student who took out the most books from the library over the course of four years. It was a bit of a competition with a fellow history major at the end there -- but two senior theses later he just couldn't compete anymore.

And of course, working in Rare Books just keeps the obsession with books coming.

Although, truth be told, I'm more with Irina in terms of collecting books -- I blame my mother on that count, though. From the day she bought me my first Folio-published set of the collected plays of Shakespeare, there's been no turning back. And Irina, I'm so glad to see someone else with the "sneak the books into the house" problem. I was consistently doing that with books through most of my teenage years. There's a good reason I didn't have much of a social life back then!

i said...

Eileen, you like Ionesco too? Ok, I take everything back, we're soulmates again. I've actually been known to drive around with a hundred books in my car as well -- it was called orals summer, and I spent it in a cottage in the woods near Plymouth, MA with a friend whose grandparents owned the place. The cottage had a separate little one-room cabin which her great grandfather, a dean of Harvard, had used to write his books in. We spent a full day cleaning out all the spiders and muck and setting up my books in it, but in the end, I wound up reading most of the stuff by the lake. (There's a picture of me in a bikini reading Beowulf that rather amused a recent editor of that poem.) I made hummus, ate lobsters, and fell in love with James Baldwin. Lord I miss orals summer.

MK, I guess we're soulmates too. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I'd been sneaking drugs and sex instead of books.

Eileen Joy said...

Irina: yes, I like Ionesco, too, and for one of my courses last semester--ENG441B, Contemporary Fiction: Fantastic/Slipstream/Realism--I used a quotation from Ionesco on the syllabus:

"Realism . . . falls short of reality. It shrinks it, attenuates it, falsifies it; it does not take into account our basic truths and our fundamental obsessions: love, death, astonishment. It presents man in a reduced and estranged perspective. Truth is in our dreams, in the imagination."

As to your question,

"I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I'd been sneaking drugs and sex instead of books,"

well, let's see . . . like me, who spent most of her high school years driving too fast in her souped up Gran Torino listening to 8-track tapes of Whitesnake and Van Halen, you would have ended up, like me, as, um, a scholar and teacher of medieval literature--make that Old English literature.

Eileen Joy said...

I think what I'm really trying to say is . . . genetics rule. Biology *is* destiny.

i said...

Haaaa! True that.

My favourite thing to do once I got my driver's licence was to take the little Honda Civic (or massive Ford Windstar, whatever uncool car was available to me in other words) and drive around on a Sunday afternoon listening to the Toronto classic rock station. Several Doors songs were guaranteed, and if I was lucky they'd play the full version of In A Gada Da Vida.

As to the Ionesco quote -- I've often thought that if you're actually from Eastern Europe, you realize all that stuff is profoundly realist. It just so happens that the only kinds of texts which can describe our reality seem surreal in the rest of the world...