My grandpa’s books

No one asked me to read all of my grandpa’s books. It was not assigned, not requested, and in fact I don’t remember having any kind of deliberation process for whether this was a good idea. He died on a Monday, the funeral was on Saturday, and on Sunday I packed up and went home, with a box of books in the trunk and the understanding that the rest would come to me as it was convenient, as Mom and Grandma got the house sorted. There was one box that almost went awry because it had a few decorative items that were going to another family member. We got it figured out because I asked after those books, because I knew what was on my grandpa’s shelves. I knew my grandpa’s shelves.

When I was really tiny, when I went to stay with my grandparents, they had my crib in their bedroom to give my parents relief, and to be with their only grandchild. But when I got a little older, my designated place to sleep at my grandparents’ house was on a day bed in my grandpa’s basement office. With his books and his desk and his model airplanes. I did a lot of my own reading down there, a lot of writing, a not-inconsiderable amount of daydreaming. And I looked at his books. Some of them I read. A lot of them just waited around until I was older or in a different mood. There were hundreds, and I had time.

It turns out I did have time, and now I’ve taken that time.

I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad that I didn’t try to do it all at once, because that would have changed a good way to know my grandfather better into a grim slog, and I would have resented it pretty much immediately. Instead I worked them into my regular reading–a lot at first, then fewer as time progressed. I was in no hurry to finish, but at the same time I did want to finish. I didn’t want this to be a permanent intention and never a reality.

The first of Grandpa’s books I read after his death was David Pietrusza’s 1920: The Year of Six Presidents. He had actively recommended it to me before he died; it was a gift I bought him that he thought I’d like too, and I did. Pietrusza has a very engaging style, and I wish he’d write more presidential election books. I’d read them all.

The last one I read–yesterday, Sunday, June 3, in case you wanted to know–was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I deliberately saved something solid and well-written for last–I didn’t want to spend the last of my grandpa’s books going “meh,” or, “shut up, that guy.” This book did not disappoint. It horrified in several spots, but it didn’t disappoint.

In between, there were books about birds and national parks, books about the Marine Corps and early aviation. There were lots and lots of spy novels and mystery novels. Things I remembered him getting at Christmas, one thing he got at birth as a gift from my great-grandparents. There was a book that had been his father’s–I think my first time looking at my great-grandfather’s handwriting. Some of them ended up feeling like they were probably desperation presents when someone in the family didn’t know what to get him–either noted down in the front, or I could remember or sometimes guess. Others were books he had loved passionately and read over and over again. I reread classics. I reread things Grandpa had read to me. Other classics–The Red Badge of Courage, Mari Sandoz, Ambrose Bierce–I had never quite gotten to.

I became acutely aware that we–my mother and my grandfather and I–had done a certain amount of division of history knowledge. World War I, for example, was my province; if anyone else in the family needs to know anything about WWI, they can ask me and I will either know or have a solid idea where to find it. Ground warfare in WWII is Mom; air and sea was Grandpa. I took the Seven Years’ War, including the US portion known as the French and Indian War in most American schools. The US Civil War was Grandpa’s. This became clear as a fairly big problem when Grandpa died and entire swaths of history went missing. Reading Grandpa’s books was part of solving that problem. Only part. It was an entire worldview shift. It’s an ongoing worldview shift.

It’s lonelier. In that one direction, even though my life is not lonely. People are not fungible. The person I most wanted to talk to about this project, the person I had the most to tell about it…was Grandpa.

I’m really glad that I have established the tradition of buying myself a book Grandpa would have been interested in, that I am also interested in, for his birthday every year. When I explain this to people, I say, “I’m not ready to be done sharing books with my grandpa yet,” and that’s completely true. But in another sense…when I put The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on the shelf with the other German history yesterday, I cried. It’s my book now. It’s my book that I inherited from my grandfather, like the Kipling was Grandpa’s that he inherited from Great-Grandpa, and now is also mine. But what it meant was that in a very real sense, ready or not, I am done sharing books with my grandpa.

He was a big library user, so I know this wasn’t all the books he read, not by half. That’s part of what made it simultaneously interesting and possible. If he wasn’t such a big reader, books wouldn’t have been important to him enough to make this project worthwhile–and yet, if I wasn’t such a bigger reader, even this pace would swamp my own reading and make it overwhelming.

I have noticed how many fewer books there used to be. Literally. There were just fewer books available, total. Part of Grandpa’s collection growing late in life is that he had both the time and the money to read in retirement, but part of it was literally more books. He read almost exclusively white American men–through no hostility toward other categories, through the kind of omission and affinity that can become natural–but it meant that when I was reading a lot of his books early on, I became aware of how much I valued diversity of all sorts in my reading choices, how glad I am to have those choices and not have to hunt through the literature of 1940 to get the best I can in that regard. I learned a lot about the books aimed at men his age, though, especially war stories. They’re surprisingly focused on romance, on the girl left to wait behind, and also on friendship. That’s a conversation we could never have had out loud. That’s an insight I had to gain this way, after. There have been lots of others, along the way.

A few people who have heard I did this have been horrified at the idea that someone would read their trash as well as their treasures, but for me that was part of the point. Grandpa’s Ten Best Books would have taught me something, to be sure, but there are all sorts of Ten Best lists. The ins and outs and intricacies of his hobbies and obsessions, the places where he put his feet up and read and interchangeable mystery novel–that’s at least as much the person as the things he thought were wonderful and wise. I feel so lucky to have had the chance and the choice to do this.

No one ever checked up on me, no one ever said, are you really doing that, haven’t you quit yet, haven’t you finished yet. No one jostled my elbow. Like so many things in his and mine life, this was between me and Grandpa. I’m the only child of an only child. There wasn’t any question of a group outing, a horde of grandchildren, a pack of us, what would we all do. There was just me. Just me and Grandpa browsing the bookstore, just me and Grandpa for hours in the library, just me and Grandpa stopping off to get an Orange Julius after, or a coffee for him and a hot chocolate for me, and having a companionable read together when we got home. I can talk to people about the individual books, but in the end this is something that I shared with my grandpa. And I’m so very glad I did.

One thought on “My grandpa’s books

  1. This is a lovely idea. (I also like the the ‘division of history’ concept. How did I not know you’d gotten WWI in that particular lottery?)

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