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His Father's Fellow Travelers

September 28, 1986|RICHARD EDER

This is written at a dining room table, an island in a sea of packing-cases, cartons and drifts of wrapping paper and sealing tape. A mover has been struggling to unstick the top half of a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookcase. Five hundred books and 18 years had sunk it into the bottom half on which it rests. Time and letters; each with its own accumulating weight and subsidence.

I am here to help my father move from north to south, and from a large apartment to a small one. A great many things have stuck to him in his 86 years, even if they are only a fraction of what has fallen away. A major winnowing went on these past few days. Riding boots, a massive inlaid Victorian desk, six pairs of flannel long johns, a set of white tie and tails, a plastic dog kennel with a Snoopy doll on top--the older you get, the jokier the presents--and so on.

From earliest childhood, I thought of my father as a man of many books and many clothes. Both were chosen with passion, set out with care, and treated with ceremony. I picture a whole closet full of dark suits--he was an American lawyer working abroad--and one light-gray plaid. I never was sure of the significance of the plaid, but when he wore it, the day's prospect seemed lighter. There was a vivid houndstooth-check sports coat, worn exclusively on weekends; and though it was worn with a necktie and a shirt with French cuffs, it declared a holiday for all of us: a trip to the country, or movies, or dinner out.

As for the books, they occupied entire walls and half-walls. There were all kinds: classical and modern literature, books on law and economics, poetry, essays, current fiction. They had a serious and substantial look, those editions of the '20s and '30s: cloth-bound, often wearing their jackets. There was a scattering of leather, as well; re-bound copies of paper-bound French and Spanish books; and later, when he began sending off to London and Oxford for catalogues, old atlases and travel memoirs.

This was not as stiff as it may sound. Well, the clothes were, maybe, but the books weren't. Except for a short child's difficulty in getting to the higher shelves, there was no question that every book was there for whoever wanted to read it.

Instead of handing us what he thought we might read, my father would tactfully edge a dozen books an inch or so out of the shelf, so we could make our choices unobserved. When I was 14, he extruded James Joyce's "Ulysses"; he was not sure how much sense it would make to me, he explained later, but hoped that the sheer splurge and vigor of the language would be encouraging to a schoolboy on a low-cholesterol diet of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.

Sic transit Allied Van Lines. Moving from country to country and later, in the United States, from New York to Michigan to Washington D.C., the books followed loyally even as the clothes--because of retirement and because he began to pay greater attention to younger people and changing ways--lightened and simplified. Open-necked shirts, a zipper jacket, finally even a tam-o-shanter, made their appearance. While somewhere in a Detroit slum or on the Bolivian Altiplano, those dark suits are walking around, still providing ceremony, and of an essentially similar kind.

This time, though, things were going to be different. They had to be. Florida construction is big on swimming pools but small on uninterrupted wall space. You can't hang bookshelves on a picture window any more than you can hang pictures. Clearly, those 1,500 books had to be radically thinned out.

We talked about it by phone over the past two months. My father's vision was streamlined, crystalline. "I love 'Bleak House' (1905 edition, half-leather) but am I going to read it again?" " 'Don Quijote' (Spanish edition, 1790, folio) is one of the funniest and most delightful books I know, but it is just silly to think that I'll get back to it." And of course, alongside these old companions there were the hangers-on. Paperbacks bought a dozen years ago in airports and looking like other members of our speeded-up society, infinitely older than, say, the "Don Quijote." Junk. No question at all of taking them south. He would carry, in fact, only the essentials. His dictionaries. A set of Shakespeare. Two big poetry anthologies. "Toi Et Moi" by the French poet Geraldy--obscure today, certainly, but back in 1925, he and my mother each had a copy. Stripped down, figuratively winged, he would arrive in Gainesville. (Not Coral Gables; you want a university and a library.)

As for the rest, an auctioneer would come for the few genuinely valuable specimens. The second-hand bookstore might be persuaded to acquire the others in bulk or, failing that, the Salvation Army, or some church preparing a bazaar. He would make the arrangements. And of course, his children could pick out anything they wanted.

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