My dad and I have what you could call a book club of two. We are dissimilar in many ways. I’m a writer, while he manages computer programmers. He is quiet, introverted and cleanly efficient. I am loud, extroverted and messily unfocused. Yet our interests are so similar that, for the past 10 years or so, we have read many of the same books.
Both of my parents read to me a lot when I was a child. Now my dad and I exchange books we’ve read whenever we visit. Our overlapping tastes include primarily two things: science fiction (with a heavy emphasis on cheap “Star Trek” novels) and quirky nonfiction, such as “Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brûlee: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America.”
When he visited me in San Francisco for the first time a few months ago, he came prepared with a suitcase full of mind- and reality-bending books by science fiction author Robert Charles Wilson, one of our current favorites. At the same time he took receipt of books two, three and four of the space opera “The Expanse,” which I had recently finished.
I have vivid memories of one of the last books we attempted to read together at bedtime when I was little, a “Star Trek” novel by Peter David (he remains our favorite “Star Trek” author). We never finished it — books like that don’t work well when read aloud a few pages at a time over many nights. That was the end of the reading aloud phase and heralded what would become our two-man book club.
Last Sunday morning we had one of our weekly phone calls. The topics don’t vary much, and that suits us fine. We talk about our health, if there is any news on that front. We talk about work. We share amusing anecdotes.
And then we start talking about books. I’m reading one of the Wilson novels right now, “Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America,” which includes a brief depiction of Jewish life in a dystopian, theocratic future America. We spoke about that, as well as “The Expanse,” now a television show that wrapped up its first season days before our phone call. (For the record: Wilensky & Son generally approve of this adaptation, but we have serious reservations about two casting choices.)
Beyond our informal book club, our lives are full of books. The house I grew up in was always overflowing with them — especially since the arrival of his second wife, who reads at an inhuman rate. The “Star Trek” books all end up in my care, where they compete for shelf space with my collection of 100-plus Jewish prayerbooks. We are in danger of drowning under them.
But no Wilensky was ever in danger of drowning under books quite like my grandmother. In my most lasting image of her, Grandma is seated on her couch, which was perpetually about to tip over under the enormous weight of all the cheap mystery novels and biographies stacked haphazardly upon it. The only thing that saved her was that she eventually stopped buying new books; her memory being what it was in her later years, she took to rereading the same ones.
It wasn’t until after her death that I began to appreciate the Wilensky book problem. I was a teenager, and the rabbi at her synagogue was too new to have known her, so he needed to rely on us for the eulogy. Waiting in the rabbi’s office while he was busy elsewhere, I began scrutinizing his bookshelves, and was doing so as he entered. Then he asked us to tell him about my grandmother.
I never really connected with her, never felt that we knew each other very well, and I said so. He asked me what I did know, and I began describing her on the couch, flanked on all sides by her books.
My father then mentioned that she had been one of the sisterhood librarians at the shul for many years, reshelving and mending the congregation’s precious volumes. The rabbi listened attentively, then performed that neat connect-the-dots trick on which so many rabbis’ sermons (and eulogies) hinge: He reminded me that, moments earlier, when he first met me, I was examining the contents of his bookshelves. Perhaps I didn’t know her well, he said, but clearly some values had been passed on; maybe we shared more than I’d thought.
It’s also worth pointing out that the original “Star Trek” series was family viewing in my father’s childhood home. As we say, l’dor vador — from generation to generation.