Perusing My Parents' Bookshelf

Boomers have always had a love-hate relationship with the generation before them, transitioning from “don’t trust anyone over thirty” to calling them “the Greatest Generation.”  Most of those who brought us into the world are gone now, and the ones who are left are “full of years” to use the Bible’s expression.

Part of the problem was that our parents’ weren’t very forthright about what they were really all about.  Products of more than a decade of adversity in the Depression and World War II, they wanted to put it all behind them and create an ideal place for their children to grow up in.  That was a mistake; it resulted in a generation that lacked a sense of reality that has plagued our country ever since.  Understandable, but still consequential.

One place I have turned to to see what “made them tick” was my parent’s bookshelf.  My parents were intelligent, sharp-tongued people, but neither of them earned an undergraduate degree.  (My mother, I found out later, quit high school to run off and get married, but that didn’t dull her smarts either).  Like generations of Americans, they were literate but not literary.  The library at home reflected their interests and not a cultural aspiration.

Obviously it is impossible to recreate that library, long broken up with moves and a nasty divorce.  But university library sales and other sources have allowed me to savour some of the books that sat on the shelves, many of which I never read before.  (At the time most of my interest in the bookshelf was centred on the World Book encyclopaedia).  So let me do some “miniature reviews” of some of these titles.

Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Seven Seas
is his delightful and encyclopaedic account of human history at sea.  Freuchen, a Danish explorer who was part of the last generation to make really new discoveries on the earth, is the “Herodotus of Marine History”, not always precise with his facts but so entertaining and engaging in his narrative and sweeping in the scope of knowledge that his work is still the best place to start a study of the subject.  It conveys better than anything else why the sea is so compelling with a sense of awe that we’ve really lost.

An entirely different experience at sea–well, sort of–is William Brinkley’s Don’t Go Near the Water.  A satire on Naval public relations in the Pacific during World War II, his book has been criticised for its desultory organisation and lack of connecting plot (like the 1960’s art movies that shortly followed).  To some extent that criticism is justified; it is more a loose progression of short stories with a running undercurrent of one Naval officer’s attempt to romance an island girl with more culture that he had.  With World War II satires Boomers preferred Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but this novel was a major best seller when it came out in 1956, the choice of the participants rather than their offspring.  The language is very salty (as one would expect in the Navy, my father’s similar speech came from the Coast Guard) but it shows a willingness–indeed a need–to make fun of the military that has been lost.

More for the coffee table than the bookshelf is the National Geographic classic Men, Ships, and the Sea (The Story of Man Library).  The text was written by the Australian mariner Allan Villiers, but it was loaded with the gorgeous photographs that were the trademark of National Geographic publications.  I grew up on what is now known as “NatGeo”, the monthly magazine was a staple at our house.  (I strongly suspect that my grandfather, in his years in Washington, got to know the Grosvenor family and the Society).  In some ways it parallels Freuchen’s book but the photographs don’t make up for Freuchen’s narrative.  In the back is a good summary of small craft operation and navigation that we, er, could have used…(this post’s date is the fiftieth anniversary of my father sending the check back to NatGeo for the book).

The strangest–but in the long run the most important–book I got from their bookshelf was the Bible.  Most Evangelicals have the Bible handed to them, literally and in the life of the church.  As an Episcopalian, that didn’t happen to me.  It took an encounter with God to impress upon me the need to find out what was there.  So I went to the bookshelf and found a little white one, only to be informed that only girls had white Bibles.  I quickly substituted that for the black cover, red-letter King James that became my first Bible.

That Bible was older than I thought; it was only as an adult that I found out why the maps in the back looked strange.  But it was a start.  For five years it was the only Bible I had, until I acquired a New English Bible and started looking at more modern translations (and older ones too, like the Vulgate and Tyndale’s).  But my voyage with God was one where I at least started out somewhere ahead of an impressed deck hand, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

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