While visiting the Contemporary Jewish Museum with our 5-year-old grandson, Ryan, for a program on Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” books, I recalled my lifelong love affair with books. Not just the stories but the volumes themselves: the covers, the authors and editors, the father who read them to me, and the Viking Press where he worked.
If Jews are the People of the Book, my father, who would have turned 97 in November, was a Person of the Books. He believed in the book business as it once was, run by families — many of them Jewish — who nurtured literature and authors.
At Viking, those authors included John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, and such children’s book authors as Ezra Jack Keats (“A Snowy Day”), Don Freeman (“Corduroy”) and Robert McCloskey (“Make Way for Ducklings”). Dad knew those authors, and he had stories of his own. I remember him coming home late one summer and going straight to bed: “I had dinner with Jimmy Breslin,” he said groaning, “and I had to match him drink for drink.”
It’s not surprising that I majored in English and became a journalist as well as a book editor. My home, like that of my parents, is filled with books. We have seven bookcases, each packed to bursting. A bedroom where our grandkids play contains children’s books. The guest room houses two massive bookcases filled with literature arranged alphabetically, from James Agee to Virginia Woolf.
Two floor-to-ceiling cases in my office contain reference books, novels I’ve recently read and novels I think I should read. On a lower shelf is a cardboard file box with backup material for a novel I started writing in 1991 and haven’t touched in 20 years. Meanwhile, in the kitchen I have about 75 cookbooks, most of which I don’t consult anymore because I download recipes.
The case in my bedroom is filled with Jewish books I carried home from J. Some of them I’ve read. Sitting on my nightstand are the books and periodicals I think I’m reading. In addition to a couple of magazines, I have a half-filled crossword puzzle book, a novel by Kate Atkinson that I keep starting and a moral philosophy book that puts me to sleep.
Books are my friends. But periodically, I have to kiss them goodbye and take them to the bins at Friends of the Library because there’s no more room. That’s why I purchased a Kindle. Now that I’m in a book club, I have to read selections that will never become my friends.
I know my father would not be happy with the advent of electronic books, but if it keeps people reading, then I guess it’s a good thing. He loved the book business, and he had an instinct for what would sell, a talent that served him well as sales director at Viking Press.
In the fall of 1962, when John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” was published, Dad made a $50 bet with Tom Guinzburg, then president of Viking, that it would become a Book of the Month Club selection. At the Christmas party, Guinzburg handed my father a Chinese lacquer chest filled with $50 in nickels and a stuffed poodle with a nametag that said Charley. But the most precious gift was a copy of “Travels with Charley” with the following inscription: “For Bob Silver, the only man I know who has a nose full of nickels. [Signed] John Steinbeck.”
That book, with a yellowing dust jacket, is now mine. When I took it off the shelf, I happened upon another story. The jacket was designed by Don Freeman, best known as the author-illustrator of myriad children’s books that I’ve read to my brother, my children and my grandchildren. Freeman gave my father a copy of “Penguins of All People” for my daughter, Niki, drawing a sketch of her on the half-title page. Now that book sits in her bookcase and she has a story to share with her own children.
The books that take up seven cases tell stories, some on the covers, some between the lines. My Kindle, which sits inconspicuously on a dresser, contains volumes. It gathers no dust and will never mildew. But it has no texture, no scent and few memories. Finding a favorite passage can be a chore. Moreover, unless I charge it up, the slim black rectangle is merely a blank slate. However, as my husband points out, it’s a lot easier to carry to Torah study than my 3-pound “Women’s Commentary.”