by Deborah Fry, July 2019.
It was from my father that I learnt to love books. Perhaps I would have found my way to loving them anyway but fortunately for me I grew up surrounded by them; being read them, always getting them for presents, continually having my scope of interest stretched, being taken to libraries, seeing my father always reading and stockpiling them, hearing him talk to others about them and having conversations with him about them myself. I don’t remember ever not knowing the joy of being read to and reading, of being drawn into another world, of learning, of being able, always and everywhere, to access the pleasure and escape of books.
Until I was 12 we lived in rented homes – in Adelaide, England and Cronulla. My father was a nuclear physicist and it was his job that took us from Adelaide where he and my mother, my brother and sister and I had all been born. Books were always around of course but it wasn’t until my parents built their own house with a separate ‘study’ that the books had their own proper place on purpose built shelves. My father had a desk in that study as well and a big comfortable armchair where he used to sit and read for hours. The only telephone in the house was in the study too and I, as a teenager, spent a lot of time on it. After school most days I would sit in the armchair talking to my friends with whom I had already spent the day talking; on weekends the conversations would be even longer. My father would keep coming to the door and interrupting to hurry me up, annoyed and truly mystified about what I could possibly be talking about for so long, trying to oust me from his chair and his room so he could get back to reading. Because the armchair faced the bookshelves, there were many hours in the six years we lived in that house during which the titles and authors of the books, their spines and their places on the shelves imprinted themselves into my memory. Even now I could probably recreate their order on those shelves and find in my mind any book. Ask me and I could have told you long before I read them (and some I never have) where to find the art books, Dürer, Klee, Nolan… (tallest bottom shelf), how many Patrick White novels he had then (six), what the cover of The Tin Drum looks like, the colour of each volume of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, what Arnold Haskell wrote about (ballet), the titles of Freud’s works, who were the great philosophers through the ages, the names of Shakespeare’s history plays and much more. I do confess there were big scientific sections my eyes did not linger upon.
In the next ten years there was more moving around the world, books being stored and me no longer living with the family. And then came another house for my mother and father, the last one. Another study, bigger, with shelves on four walls, not just one; many, many more books and of course an armchair in which to read them. Not living there myself, I didn’t spend purposeless hours in that study but when I visited I’d often go and just look at the books, taking the new layout into my brain, sometimes borrowing, looking things up, just being close to my favourites and familiars and noting new ones. Gradually the shelves filled and books flowed out into other rooms onto other shelves, the floor, bedside tables.
And then, my parents, 90 and 86, moved out of their home into aged care. The house was sold and something had to be done with the books. Some special favourites are now on small shelves or piled up on surfaces in my father’s new room. His greatest anxiety and grief about this huge dreaded move had been about being parted from his books. A lifetime’s cherished collection. I understood completely. Choosing what to take was too hard for him – how could he possibly know what he was going to need to look up, he asked? I boldly, and with trepidation and heavy heart myself, chose for him - 60 or so. He hasn’t complained much – one day pointedly noting that he “used to have” a physics text book in which he could look up tables of various “essential” things, and asking, luckily before it was too late, for the piano scores of Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin so he can follow them if he feels like it when listening to CDs.
It won’t surprise you that I have built up my own too large collection of books and have run out of room to put them so I could only take a few of the collection most special to me. But how incredibly lucky we are to have a bookseller and book lover in the family, Tom of Grand Days! He spent hours curating the books, lovingly but with his bookseller’s eye, casting a lot aside, but keeping many for Grand Days.
And now, when I spend time in Grand Days I see my father’s books everywhere. I know them from their familiar spines. In the modern fiction section, in ‘classics’ and Australian fiction, in philosophy and science and psychology, in history ancient and modern, biography, poetry and plays, ballet and music, art and architecture, essays and political discourse, literary criticism, sport, religion, linguistics, travel, the reference section of course….. His interests were extraordinarily wide ranging and the numerous contradictions in his make-up were notable. He was an atheist and rationalist through and through but Aldous Huxley was one of his favourites - he owned every one of Huxley’s books, fiction and non and a number of biographies. Fortunately, another bookish grandson has taken all of them. My father was a scientist but loved literature and the arts. He played the piano and learnt ballet in his twenties but played 2nd grade AFL and was a record-setting pole vaulter. He taught me about marshalling thoughts and making sure you know what you are talking about. But he encouraged curiosity and questioning and challenging of oneself. We argued vociferously about many things - nuclear energy, feminism, Zionism, Freud, nature vs nurture, psychiatry… and maddeningly he often trumped me with “facts” which he held in his head or could look up in his library in an instant.
Some of the books which went to Grand Days are first editions; clearly “R.M Fry” kept up with what was going on in the literary world and prioritised buying books as soon as they came out – especially, and curiously, during his university student years and soon after when he had a wife and three small children to support on a miniscule new science graduate’s salary. Books must have been relatively cheaper then. Many have his name in them and the date he bought them, many show evidence of his having read them thoroughly – pencil notes in his tiny neat writing in the text or on thin inserted sheets of paper. I marvel that he had the time for this concentrated reading and thinking over the years. There were many other aspects of life which absorbed him – his work, family, keeping fit, travelling, warm stimulating friendships, music, having fun. It makes me feel sad and proud to see these books on the Grand Days shelves. Sad for obvious reasons. Proud of him and his huge span of interest and knowledge and his passion for books. And proud of Tom and Tamara who have created a beautiful bookish place where his books can be kept, perhaps for just a while until they move onto someone else who will hopefully appreciate and cherish them. Lucky we in the family are to have a father and grandfather who passed on his deep book-love to us. None of us, like him, could possibly imagine a bookless life.