It was the right time. And the right circumstances.
Locked in the prison of COVID-19 with no escape, retired from designing and strategic marketing, my working office was ready for a good cleaning out. Purging files was easy, as were research docs, visuals, loose notes, and sketches hanging around, some for twenty-five years.
As ego goes, I’m far from immune. It would bother me that my grown children would not see solutions for some of the largest organizations in the world. I wanted them to discover that dad was sharp and some of his stuff was brilliant. Took a week, kind of a celebration, and diversion before getting down to business. And the early notes, refinements, contracts, the people I worked with, or for, or who worked for me seemed still so vivid. Though upset about my legacy, out it went from closet, shelves, cabinets, and drawers. So, a little, well not weepy, but aware a door was closing on a professional life done. And reminding me I’m so much closer to the end than the beginning.
But I pulled up short, brakes on, engine off, prop not spinning. I knew what was coming next. Before I could organize the space, I came face to face with heavy decisions and the weight of emotions they carried. So… Books, books, books, everywhere. Subjects critical at moments to earn degrees. Volumes illustrating techniques and expertise; historical pages that gave foundation to decisions. Every type, shape, color, weight, age, and price. The cliché that books are like old friends that even if ignored, are ready to visit anytime made these actions feel like a betrayal. I am not a procrastinator. When you work as a consultant you learn how true the adage, ‘time is money’ and, ‘thinking, that takes time, costs money’. I have worked efficiently and proficiently.
Drawing from experience and research, parceling enough time for planning and communicating with clients or colleagues produced fresh, clever, creative on-trend solutions. I always got the work done and shipped.
Except, now. Professional habits so ingrained began sliding towards a permanent vacation. Inaction, terminal ennui, hesitation. What was Han Solo encased in? Carbonite? I envy him.
Let’s step back 65 years or so…
Our 4-room apartment was full of books.
My mother read every bestseller and all of us, the weekly color periodicals; my father every newspaper, glossy magazine, and technical catalogs, reflecting his interests or hobbies at the time. He relaxed with the latest pulp novels. I was enrolled in the ‘Book of The Month’ child’s edition from 5 years old. I still have my favorite, “Seven Into Space, The Story of The Mercury Astronauts”. How many times did I spin around the corner to catch the elevator — or rush down the stairs to the wall of shiny brass mailboxes hoping a magazine had come for me. In school, we paid $1 per week (mandatory) for the New York Times, with a current events quiz for students on Friday. My parents signed an installment agreement to get the young adult version of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Long before the loan was paid I had read it cover to cover. On to the ‘real’ version — protected in a special cabinet in a new branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Slow work, at least a year — with many vacations.
And it was like this in every Jewish household in my building. In East Flatbush, my grandmother had a Readers Digest subscription and their book series as well, and Grandpa devoured anything a good American should read. Why such reverence for the written word? In general, these were post-war attitudes and behaviors. It was simply expected the first generation born after the second world war was to exceed the achievements of our parents. We’d be going to college and entering a profession, followed by marriage and as many children as we could sustain. There was a subterranean message never spoken hidden by adults. We were vessels to replace the six million who died in the camps. They drove us hard to achieve and required, among other demands, a respectable job and income sufficient to support a happy family. Knowledge was the door and reading, the key.
Few religions or cultures match Christian faiths, whose massive cathedrals embellished with color radiant through massive, stained glass windows welcomed the light of the lord to its dark interior, its astonishing height heaven itself. In stirring brushwork by the greatest of artists and artisans, and incredible, dynamic sculptures the gospels of the new testament were visual epics to awe and educate illiterate peasants. Today, no church even in the poorest parish, is not without its best treasures on display.
Judaism is a culture based on the word. It is an oral and literary tradition — we had not and still do not rely on much visual imagery to tell our 5781-year-old history. As a child, even during college years, if I fell short of a fact or the merest iota of information, Grandma would, and this does say it all, “Richard, look it up”.
The Holocaust was the most profound evil in modern history for our people. Regardless of one’s commitment to the literal old testament, a national fervor to expunge an entire people universally influenced all Jews.
The burning of books was the second-worst. Destruction of the written word was infamy. The accumulated knowledge, of fact, fables, and stories; of history, of art and fantasy, reduced to ash the creative efforts of Jews and non-Jews alike. Our ‘tribe’ harbors a reverence for authors needed to enrich our minds and imaginations, ask important questions, and seek answers. Reducing this biological need in our character to ash was designed to delete thinking and suppress humanity. The dead were dead and the mourning continues. But, the living became impoverished in culture and spirit.
The time arrived to select a selection of a meager batch of books — that I could neither donate nor share i.e., pandemic. Being a realist, I thought I might exhibit some stoicism at this point. Nope. When the pile of books thudded into the bin felt at once I had violated my culture and personal ethic woven into me from childhood. It was overwhelming.
A better person would have listed all the volumes I eventually — let’s face it — destroyed — as a requiem for the writers of fact, fiction, of professional texts held from the first days of work then resurrected when I taught. Books that illustrated the how and why of all things helped me grow a literary and visual vocabulary. Most profitably they taught the basic art of influencing audiences to speak with persuasion and passion. I was able to site references of the history of this or that and explain how the modern evolved from the past — in practical ways, perfect for my audiences. I had a pretty deep collection in a few fields, not merely a superficial visit about some subject or other. Excepting my notes, I’d never been able to recreate those words and experiences again — then again, I’d never have to. But it would have been pleasant to pass them on.
These remained as well — marketing research, principles. Notebooks and sketchbooks will remain until an inheritor has to make the decision — after they are read of course. Wow, Dad was smart!
As I look down at my wrinkled hands on the keyboard, I can’t help but think of the boy who first fell in love with reading, and the smell of a new book just unwrapped, and show off ink stains from newspapers as proof of letterpress pages digested front to back or vice-versa — depending on the progress of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
And the fact is, I became a writer, too. Two textbooks, teacher’s guides, references, white papers, eBooks, magazine and reference articles, and blog entries used for information, teaching moments, and opinion internationally. My wife too, a voracious reader and superb teacher of the highest merit, ensuring the disenfranchised street kids she taught might — and did — revere Shakespeare as a precursor to hip hop lyrics. And this is a gift we have passed down to our adult children, with children of their own. Great readers and lovers of good literature, each is a model for their progeny that began with our parents’ parents.
Grandkids with their digital distractions are not the readers we think we would like them to be. But they read in their way, in another reality disconnected from ours — kind of a disjointed reading process. This is a new kind of behavior attuned to the heavily digitized world. I’ve taken note that when interested and motivated, exploring content they lock on to and can bounce from a text to video to checking out details on the web, easily referencing or diving even deeper through different media to fully encircle a subject and become experts.
But I could only offer books. I passed these on to my oldest grandson entering whatever college is these days, texts he will use, even if out of date, yet with relevant information and I, hoping to offer some inspiration for making these volumes the core of his professional library.
As I began this essay asking to be pardoned for my sins, I include disappointment for the opportunity others might have received from the words and pictures whether for purpose or pleasure.
Anyone who has written to be read by others knows it’s not just putting one word in front of the other. It’s tough work and quite naturally your readers will let you know what they think of your efforts. So, it’s a writer’s conceit to be read — after all if not, then the effort surely exhausts one’s ego. I want something back for the strain.
All the knowledge, interpretations, inspiration, fun, fantasy, and joy I got and still get from reading and often writing, is a blessing. I have friends who tell me I’m so lucky I take pleasure in reading when they cannot. How could it have been otherwise? I was an acolyte to those around me who read — I just naturally did what they did. Never once did anyone tell me to read — except maybe homework. Books are what I am made of, and substantially, made me. The pleasure of reading, of learning something new; a word to look up, a passage worth keeping in notes, ideas to test against my thinking or opinion, finding evidence in the ‘real’ world discovered on the printed page. Nowadays, particularly when driving on stretches of highway or a route with which I am familiar, I enjoy podcasts because it’s fun to be read to and though I’ve spent many years in the digital realm I still find it a miraculous treat.
And then as time was short, I hit up the local liquor store owner for some boxes (and should have bought a few bottles for courage or dull the memory) I spent two days picking through the shelves, rationalizing as much as thinking, what should remain and what was unnecessary, What a hurtful word that can be.
To dismiss any writer’s words is insulting and demeans their struggle. A poorly crafted novel, with stilted, forced dialogue and equally unsympathetic characters, or the best information made exciting and alive with flourishes of language and words I can taste, have their genesis from only one source — the dictionary. I think of some stinkers I have started and now, finally, I don’t feel guilty putting them down. I’m guessing those authors failed to select the correct words or put them in better order.
What separated books I kept from those I dismissed might have been at the hormonal, reptilian level. Are juicy words few others know, useful phrases, terms, or pithy ripostes; quotations, maybe words, and phrases to be weaponized and flung at someone over the barbecue. Absorbing consequential information spoken out or injected into my writing is always a pleasure. Nevertheless, every writer who writes puts in the time works out their thoughts, conjures a story, gives life to characters, attempts to make meaning and emotion from their mind or gut, and sometimes the heavy lifting of research, too. To be thumped by editors or readers that penetrate and wound is the risk. They, we, I, must be respected — or pitied. Maybe I had that in the back of my mind when I parted with those volumes for which I had neither use nor room. I think if space were not at issue, I’d keep them all, good not so good — if for no other reason than avoiding a choice of who lives and who dies.