My father moved into my Brooklyn home about 10 years ago when my mother died, and thus began my career as his personal librarian. When he first moved to Brooklyn, I showed him how to use the bus system so he could travel to and from the Brooklyn Central Library. I gave him a simplified explanation of the Dewey system; telling him what I tell everyone who comes to the reference desk, “think of the number as the address where the subject or book lives on the shelf.” I knew my father’s reading preferences very well and it was with assurance that I sent him to the 940’s to find exactly what he would like. For the most part he took care of his reading material himself, with his weekly jaunts to the library. I would pepper his selections with other books I thought he might enjoy from the collections at Mid-Manhattan. Favorites in the category were Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin, Sweet and Low: A Family Story by Rich Cohen, Wild Swans:Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, The Color of Love: A Mother’s Choice in the Jim Crow South by Gene Cheek and much more. His reading was varied, but mainly it was WWII history he loved and always non-fiction. While at my house he watched no TV. My father just read for his entertainment. As far as I could tell he loved it.
A year and half ago my father became quite ill. I had noticed he did not seem himself so I forced him to go the doctor. I was informed that my father was very sick with congestive heart failure, a common affliction of the elderly. He was so sick there was cause for concern whether he would even live. For 10 days I maintained a presence at the hospital. I sadly watched him turn old right before my eyes. I brought him books while at the hospital but they remained unread. I surmised he was distracted by his plight. Naturally he became depressed. Life was now different and he would have to adjust, or not. The trips to the library would now become memories. Within a matter of days his world became miniscule to what it had been. Miles of travel would now be reduced to blocks, if he was lucky. There was nothing neither he nor I could do; this was life, cruel and ironic.
Once home my father tried to manage a hefty depression. He now had to get used to a new self and that new self would be drastically different from a few weeks before. I brought him books, foolishly thinking reading would be a welcome distraction. How wrong I was. The books gathered dust and their beckoning was left unanswered. I finally broke down and bought him a TV and had cable installed. My kids were thrilled and my father became a zombie in front of the blue screen. He watched for hours and would sleep and then watch more. It broke my heart. He seemed unable to focus on a book. Outwardly he seemed fine, but to me he had become a mere shadow of himself. He no longer seemed an active participant in life, but rather a passive ride taker. I became resigned to my new father and just tried to make him comfortable.
There came a time recently when I brought home two books, the book I was reading A Death in the Family by James Agee and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides the book I planned to start reading afterwards. My father is Greek and our family is from Detroit so I made a point of showing him Middlesex because of the Greek author and the Detroit setting for his book.
My father in his old age has developed a keen interest in everything Greek. I thought the Eugenides book would interest him, if not to read then to simply marvel at the author’s heritage. To my surprise it was the Agee book that caught his interest. He said about the Agee book, “I always wanted to read this book.” With that, I said “here pops, take it, you read it.” That was months ago and my father has been reading fiction every since. Perhaps by reading fiction my father has been able to recapture a part of life that he has lost in his own life. Author Paul Theroux once said “fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us.” I bring him mysteries like: Georges Simenon, Henning Mankell, Elmore Leonard and other works of fiction from Ian McEwan to Somerset Maugham and many more. I am happy to be of service to my father for as long as it lasts. I am also so thankful to be working at Mid-Manhattan, with such an incredible collection of fiction to choose from.