Essays & Observations

My father was a reader

My father was a reader, a man for whom books were knowledge and sustenance; and a kind of intellectual and spiritual consolation as well. Given time and a choice, I’m sure he would have died reading, books were such an essential part of his life. It was their words, their wisdom, that mattered to him; and like most books, they were important only as long as one read them, held them in one’s hands, and in one’s mind. Out of reach, they receded into the woodwork, not entirely ignored or neglected, but withdrawn, much like those devoted servants of The Forsyte Saga and The Remains of the Day – attendant at a discreet distance, but ready and waiting to be recalled to service. And like good servants, there was a time when such good books kept hearth and home together, perhaps even upheld the world, until their foolish or faithless masters brought it down around their helpless, heedless heads.

My father was not an aesthete, nor a dilettante. He was a man whose book collecting was adjunct, almost incidental, to his education. He became a book collector – that is, someone who ventured into the used and rare book world – in order to find the books he wanted to read, most of the writings of the authors he especially enjoyed reading having long since gone the way of the world to which they had belonged. Had the books he wanted to read been readily available, I doubt he would have bothered with first editions. He wasn’t a connoisseur; there was nothing precious about his tastes. And although he was justifiably proud of some of his acquisitions, he wasn’t acquisitive in the way of most collectors.

Insofar as he took pride in his books – and he did – it was less the pride of ownership than the pride of association. He was proud of his books the way one can be proud of one’s friends. His was a companionable kind of collecting that over the long years became a part of our family, and to some degree, extended beyond our family. My father admired the authors he read, the authors whose books he collected, and he was happy to introduce them to his less bookish friends. My father felt he knew his authors; they were his comrades and companions – and he identified himself with them. They informed him, and helped him define himself and his world, a world most of them had not lived to see. I think he loved them – their words, their sensibilities, their passion, their common sense, and I suspect, to some extent, even their terrible fate.

My father collected the literature of the Great War – the soldier poets who died on the Western Front like Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg, and Edward Thomas; the soldier poets who survived the war, like Ivor Gurney, who went mad and died in an asylum; or Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, who became better known after the war for their memoirs and their broken friendships; and the veteran novelists whom so few have heard of, much less read, like Frederic Manning and R. H. Mottram and C. E. Montague.

He also collected the works of the journalist, travel writer, and novelist, H. M. Tomlinson, perhaps my father’s favorite author, and the author of one of the best World War I novels, All Our Yesterdays. Its title came from Macbeth – "and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death" – and laid down the bitterest judgment of the war, all that "sound and fury signifying nothing".

I think it was less my father’s admiration for the ante-bellum world of Georgian England, with all its class-conscious rectitude, propriety and pretension, that drew him to the literature of the Great War than it was his sense of kinship with a generation of doomed soldiers – doomed through no fault of their own, other than perhaps their patriotism, that peculiar virtue that wartime inevitably subverts into a fatal flaw. I think it was the fact that these men lived and died at a time, and in a world, that betrayed them, that betrayed the values and convictions they had been brought up to accept and affirm – and that, in fact, they came to personify in their service to King and Country, even in the face of certain death. These men came to represent the best that remained in a world of inconsistency and inconsequence, a world of chaos and confusion, in which a chasm had erupted, like an interminable trench, between their culture’s professed beliefs and its reality. More to the point, they came to represent the immeasurable price the world paid for its folly.

The First World War and its aftermath were grim spectacles, four years of senseless slaughter followed by a blind and vindictive peace treaty. When it ended, there was little to celebrate except the nobility of the hitherto ignoble – the bravery and camaraderie of the ordinary men who died in the trenches – as if their heroism alone might justify the war and their sacrifice. The veterans celebrated those men, their virtues, in memoir after memoir for the next twenty years, until the next cataclysm that the Versailles Treaty had set in motion came to fruition. There were no Pyrrhic victory parades after the Great War, only the seemingly endless anthems for doomed youth, and the obsequies for a bankrupt civilization; and the disheartening attempt, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, to salvage some few fragments to shore against the ruins.

The literature of the Great War sifted through the rubble, creating an unprecedented record of the decent, honorable common soldier. All in all, it is a great hymn to the common man – written not in the sardonic style of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill but in the soothing, sober tones of the Book of Common Prayer. At the same time, it is a literature of disillusionment and displacement, of betrayal and bewilderment, of irremediable loss and alienation. It exemplified the fact that history had become a nightmare, as Joyce put it, from which millions of men and women could only hope to awake – a vain hope, for what followed the First World War were its even more hideous spawn, the Holocaust and the Second World War.

The Great War was not a war of redemption anymore than it was the "war to end all wars." Without some afterlife or brave new world to redeem it, there was nothing redemptive about a world gone so fatally wrong. The war was a catastrophe, inconceivable and incomprehensible, with all the horror of King Lear, which Dr. Johnson considered an abomination and couldn’t bear to finish reading. Its only virtues seemed to lie in its merciful end, and in the testimonies of a generation of writers – those who died and those who survived – who watched their civilization crumble before their eyes, a civilization they had thought made sense.

Civilizations, like lives, however, seem to make sense only in retrospect, after all the mistakes have been made and the lives lost, in the myths and legends and stories that are parsed together in their wake. Our own histories are essentially posthumous, perhaps because so much of our lives are so myopic – or unconscious. But before we can make sense of history, we have to make sense of our lives – so little of which will be salvaged, so much of which will be lost in translation after we’re gone. The need for understanding, however, the search for meaning, is natural, even urgent, at all times, but especially in the worst of times. It is why we have literature and religion; and although the study of history may seem regressive and distracting – looking in the rear view mirror when you should have your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel – the effort to find meaning in history is simultaneously the effort to find meaning in one’s own life. It is not idle curiosity.

It is perhaps no paradox that the greatest work of literature to come out of the Great War was not a memoir written by a soldier from either side of the trenches, but a long and disturbing poem called The Waste Land by a neurasthenic American working at Lloyds Bank in London. It was a poem that reflected the simultaneous disintegration of a civilization and a man, a man who survived his and his society’s collapse to create his own poems of faith and redemption in Ash-Wednesday and Four Quartets.

The literature of the Great War, like the literature of the Holocaust, is a literature of witness and memory. It is not a literature of explication or explanation, and certainly not a literature of justification. Perhaps at its best it is a literature of expiation, although the expiation is only performed by those capable of understanding the need for it – the victims. Insofar as there is redemption in the event, or rather, insofar as we can divine any redemption, it is created and commemorated in the literature made by the men who witnessed the horror.

I think my father’s interest in the literature of the First World War arose from his own sense of vulnerability in the face of an increasingly dangerous world – the world of the Second World War, a world that then as now seems to have an uncontrollable tendency to go insane. And I think he found some consolation in the lives of the men who served their countries, all too well, in the so-called Great War, both those who survived to tell the tale, and those who died, so they believed, in defense of their country and their way of life. Whether their lives, sacrificed in the name of England, Germany and France, gave their countries and the war meaning, or whether those countries gave meaning to the millions of lives that were lost, is a point probably not worth debating. And we’ll never know whether those lives, had they been preserved, would have saved their countries from the disasters that lay ahead. If the war proved anything, it was that those lives were precious, and deserved to have been spared from the juggernaut of history.

At the end of the day, we find meaning and consolation and hope where we can; and I think most often, and most reliably, we find them in the books we read, not least in the books that tell us how other people have lived and died. We ought to ponder our past and our history, even as they pass away, just as we ought to examine our lives, which will hardly improve if we allow them to go unread.

It’s true that the mind has never held such persuasive sway over matter; and no matter how wise or wonky we imagine ourselves to be, things will have a way of getting out of control or going their own way. Consider the smartest guys in the room, Alan Greenspan and Ayn Rand's other minions, and the laissez-faire world of credit default swaps and mortgage-based derivatives. Or consider our mortality, and how little use a live mind can be in a dying body.

As Thomas Nashe put it simply in "In Time of Pestilence" (1593), "This world uncertain is"; and I hate to think where I would be, or what I would be, had my father not been a reader who resurrected more than a few not altogether forgotten used books.