...in which Ashley contemplates the unknown secrets of unreadable books.
Almost everything in my father’s house had been there since the beginning of time. Or before my time anyway. My father had little interest in renovating, updating appliances, or discarding damaged items a little duct tape might fix. Everything was fine like it was in this junk-strewn ranch house with the perpetual Seventies flair. So when he passed away this year, having held down this fort for over a half-century, cleaning out his domain was like breaking the seal on Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, if Tutankhamun’s chamber had included broken VCRs and macrame wall hangings. It seemed sacrilegious to move the faulty toaster oven from its sacred corner, not to mention to actually toss it at the dump. Surely, we would be struck by an ancient curse, one as old as these bottles of Prell.
I felt especially unnerved about approaching my father’s book collection, standing in formation on the same bookshelves since the J. Fred Muggs era. Of course, my father being something other than a man of letters, his collection was less a “library” than an obligatory smattering of not-yet-discarded antiques, rounding out the bookshelf aesthetic, as was standard interior procedure of mid-century suburbia. Like my parents’ LP collection, this small supply of books was seen as a bare-minimum domestic necessity. A house was simply supposed to have a few books on the shelf, regardless of whether or not anyone living there knew how to read. Same rule applied to the living room piano.
No one, to my knowledge, had ever read these books. The significance they held was simply that they had always been there. The small selection of actual literature, Treasure Island, Hans Brinker, High Sierra (a rather spicey selection by my father’s standards), all had gift inscriptions on the endsheets, implying that they had been given to my dad as a boy, and had remained uncracked for eighty years. More likely to have actually been read by my father were Introduction to Fire Science (my father being a devout firefighter), the AMA Family Medical Guide (he being a devout hypochondriac), and the old man’s original Boy Scout Handbook (he being a devout mama’s little precious). Plus an assortment of church-related ephemera: Collections of inspirational verses, hymnals, the Young Reader’s Bible, clipped obituaries, and programs from every funeral held since 1934.
(I am reminded of an observation by my boyhood chum, Gnat, deemed the Law of Literary Regression, which holds that the fewer books someone owns, the greater likelihood that one of them is the Bible.)
Of course none of these books were of the slightest interest to my siblings or to me growing up, lacking as they were, we assumed, in Beat protagonists, pornographic scenarios, or R. Crumb illustrations. We did get a modicum of begrudging use out of the World Book encyclopedias, plagiarizing sections for last-minute school assignments and the like. These informative tomes had been given to my father by one of the neighbors, which was in keeping with our family tradition of somehow winding up with our belongings rather than actively purchasing them. This set a pattern for me, my whole life’s intellectual development owing to perfectly-good ideas someone else had chucked in the dumpster.
As a toddler, my own preferred reading material was stored in the cabinet below these shelves: Tarzan comics, Popeye Big Little Books, and other heady cartoon junk I’d somehow wound up with. As my interest in text without the benefit of Don Heck drawings developed, I continued the habit of ignoring the den’s Potemkin publications in favor of traditional teen-pothead lit. Gorging on Hesse, Joyce, and other authors I pretended to understand, left me little time to peruse that rotting copy of Heidi. And anyhow, despite a developing interest in reading, it never occurred to me that my father’s books were anything other than props. Reading them was as unthinkable as eating the wax fruit in the dining room.
And so the small collection sat, unread and unmoved, into the next century, until my father’s passing. Clearing out his house revealed my father’s priorities over recreational reading: Preserving rusted paint cans, expired medication, endless rolls of ace bandages (like Tutankhamun’s), and the piles of unused notepads, calculators, and blank Christmas cards mailed to him as thanks for his charitable donations. None of this could be thrown away while he lived; someone might need it. And I suppose the same was true of the Consumer Reports 1986 Used Car Buyer’s Guide, which my father never referenced, but which a visitor from 1986 might still find useful. There the books remained, but be they buyer’s guides or Ben Hur, brushing up on those immovable classics had never been on my father’s schedule. Hee Haw’s on in twenty minutes.
And yet, had I attempted to toss my father’s copies of Apples of Gold or Lord Jim while he was still manning the recliner, the resulting anxiety would have croaked John Earl Holt right then and there. Not because the contents of those books meant anything to him, but because, in a world of nerve-wracking upheaval and so-called progress, those books, like the broken 8-track deck and the 1978 Ace Hardware calendar, had never wavered. They were always there. Like the ancient pyramids, the reliability of an unread Yearling on the shelf remained a monolith of tranquility and contemplative permanence.
Until Howard Carter’s moving van shows up and empties those pyramids of their ancient scrolls. Sadly, my father’s decaying texts did not have a British Museum awaiting their arrival, only the local Goodwill store, repository of all Reader’s Digest Condensed Books left behind by our vanishing elders. That’s what happens to A Raisin in the Sun deferred.
I can only imagine the inspiration contained between those moldy covers, if only I’d made the time. Who knows where I’d be today if I’d chosen that Wordsworth over Wolverton. Who knows how the spirits might have moved me if I’d first experienced A Tale of Two Cities in that unabridged tome and not the Classics Illustrated comic book adaptation. Who knows what great scholarship that handful of unopened relics might have induced in my vulnerable, young intellect. Instead, those books, and indeed everything in my boyhood home, have inspired now, in my advancing age, one-thousand-word odes to Things That Never Move.
I think the old man would be proud.
(And let’s not forget Ashley’s website, jam-packed with portraits and other drawings, his highly-affordable prints and books currently available, his eagerness for your portrait commission, and his contact email, email@example.com, where he longs to hear from you.)
Thanks for reading The Symptoms! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Was there really wax fruit? Dude. Great essay. As a fellow lover of compound-modifying hyphens, note that adverbs obviate the hyphen. "Perfectly good." Carry on.