The right books can open the world

Posted: June 12, 2012

It was raining in Massachusetts the other day, so my father decided to throw out some of my old books.

Dad is 86, and loves an indoor project when he cannot weed the perennials or slap fresh paint on Sam, the lawn jockey, who is now so thickly coated he'd make a Clydesdale groan.

I was a little harsh on the phone. Sentimental things expose a basic tension between us: Dad likes to prune, I like to compost.

The addition at the back of our 1949 ranch house in the woods is no longer the bedroom I had to share with my older brother. It's Dad's office now, as he's been retired from the hardware store for a couple of decades.

He sits at my brother's old Formica desk to pay the bills, check AOL, curse the printer, and occasionally add a golf tee or a fresh calendar to shelves that are otherwise a shrine dedicated to the Rubin boys, circa 1970.

"We're boxing up your books," my dad said.

"You're kidding?

“They're mostly paperbacks."

That part got to me the most. Their value had nothing to do with how the books were bound and everything to do with memory. What I want is for those books to remain where they have always been — philosophy and French and history books from high school on the high shelves, among the 1967 Guinness Book of World Records, the Baseball Almanac from before the expansion, the script of S.J. Perelman's The Beauty Part, where senior year I played Milo Leotard Allardyce Duplessis Weatherwax:

"Now look here Octavia, I've just given the French maid a severe dressing down. There are loose rubies all over the foyer."

My brother's books I remember even better. I grew up with them, and they exerted surprising influence on me. He devoured sea adventures like Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki and Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. He had all of Ian Fleming's James Bond thrillers, Jack London's tales, and bomb-shelter favorites like Red Alert and Fail-Safe.

I read none of them.

My brother went off to school and left me with his books, which I did not appreciate. Not sure if the problem was my brain or my attitude, but I did not have his ability to lose himself so deeply in the written word that he couldn't hear my mother's call. I grew up in a treasure chest of great books, all of them wasted on me. I listened to music instead.

In eighth grade, something changed. I remember sitting in bed long after lights-out, enraptured by a book of my own, T.H. White's The Once and Future King. The story follows a rammy lad named Wart who lives in 12th-century England and falls under the tutelage of an old wizard he meets in the forest. The wizard shows him the world by changing him into different animals.

For once, the words weren't an impenetrable wall I skirted in search of an easier payoff. I stopped counting the pages — I didn't even know I was turning them — and for once, I could hear all the dialogue. The key moment occurs as Wart is helping his older brother prepare for knighthood. There's a tournament. His brother has misplaced his sword. Wart runs to find him a replacement and hastily pulls one from an anvil that's been placed upon a stone.

And it dawns on me — OK, I wasn't so swift — this is the legend of King Arthur.

From that moment, I was a reader, admittedly a slow and dreamy one. A different one from my brother. More of the books that captured my attention remain on those shelves, Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book, Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, and Dick Gregory's That Shadow That Scares Me. I even got into some of my brother's mysterious adventures, like James Hilton's Lost Horizon and John Fowles' The Magus.

After our phone conversation, Dad e-mailed my brother, asking if he had designs on any of the books. My brother said to get rid of his plays in French; he can no longer read them. But soon he was having second thoughts. "They've been there 40 years," he said. "Another few years won't hurt anyone."

I told Dad I preferred that the books stay right where they are, so I can freeze time, so whenever I drop by my old house, I can sit in that room, on the velour sofa that replaced the twin beds, and as night falls and the radiator belches that foul steam heat, I can get lost again in the words that took so long for me to hear.

That's when Mom said I was a little late. Dad had already filled a few boxes with books. "You could take them back to Philadelphia," she said. My own boys are grown now and out of the house, at least for the moment.

I have always said that either one of their rooms would make a fine study.

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, follow or @danielrubin on Twitter.

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