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Reading Journal

Reading Journal, November 30, 2012

A member of our Clayton Community Library Book Club recommended David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to me quite a few months ago. Because I respect her reading taste, I promptly went out and bought a used copy, brought it home, and just as promptly put it on top of my “to read” stack. There it remained until last night when I realized that the cover of the book, still at the top of the stack, no longer had the same cover as its newer edition with a movie tie-in. Time was of the essence.

It is now the next morning and although I’m only on page 14, I’ve already read maybe four or five stories told by the protagonist, Mr. Ewing: the one about the false teeth, about the non-violence of the Morioris, about the introduction of pigs to Chatham Island, and now that I think about it, there’s probably more than four or five stories. The book is five hundred pages long and I will, no doubt, go through three packs of skinny post-its before ever reaching page 509, but it is the telling of stories that I am thinking about this morning.

The story I want to tell was remembered when I recently posted Ann Ronald’s review of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars on Bookin’ with Sunny. Within the review, she made reference to a science fiction novel by George R. Stewart, a name that is particularly embedded in my mind – not because I’ve really read Stewart, but because George R. Stewart was one of my father’s professors at UC Berkeley in the early 1930’s. Right away one would assume, after reading that sentence, that I probably come from a very educated family, one whose father would, from time to time, mention the importance of Stewart’s writing, beginning with his favorite, Fire, published some years after dad’s graduation. Although my family’s background did not include the world of letters, my father’s story did involve a conversation between himself and Professor Stewart, one in which the good professor suggested my father change his intended major from journalism to business. The Great Depression likely played a part in Mr. Stewart’s belief that journalism was not a profession for a young man hoping to make his financial mark. The advice was taken and my father obtained his U.C. Berkeley Bachelor’s degree in business in 1932.

Speed forward past a seldom spoken of, but successful WWII engagement (another entirely different story) to the time my father went into business with his father in Oakland, California. Throw in a marriage and eventually three children. Throughout my childhood my father would hold forth at the dinner table, speaking about his business (prospering), his customers, and all the things that were relevant to his and my mother’s life. When we kids were asked about school or some such thing, our answers were usually shortened by my father’s need to correct our use of our native tongue, English. And that is when George R. Stewart’s name would be mentioned. We were often corrected and, therefore, George R. Stewart’s name was as familiar to me as Marguerite Henry’s, albeit for entirely different reasons. My father never quoted from Marguerite Henry. More years passed until father became editor of The Live Oak, Oakland Rotary’s monthly newsletter. The distance between my father and author Stewart lessened, with my father suggesting that George R. might have been mistaken in his long-ago advice.

I can’t remember when I came across a first edition of Fire, but it was a thrill to present it to my father on one of his birthdays. Unwrapped was not just the novel, but also the Cal memories, the professor’s advice, etc. For years, and especially when I became part of the book world, I would search out first editions of George R. Stewart’s work (with good dust jackets) and give them to my father for birthdays and Christmases. His enthusiasm never wavered and I reveled in a father/daughter bond that had escaped me for so many years.

My father retired, my mother died, but as long as I could find anything written by Stewart, the gifting of his books never ceased. The last George R. Stewart book I gave him was on his ninetieth birthday. I had found, and this time actually read before wrapping, a fine 1950 first edition, with dust jacket, of The Year of the Oath. The wording on the cover continued with, A concise and highly readable account of the fight for academic freedom at the University of California. This would be the pièce de résistance. Remember now, he is an old man and surrounded by children and grandchildren. The book, unwrapped with arthritic but determined fingers, lays before him. He looks around at all of us, then pauses, directing his attention toward his grown grandchildren, “Did I ever tell you,” he says, now raising the book and his voice, “this son-of-a-bitch gave me the only F I’ve ever gotten!”

All these years. Amazing. It was the last of the professor’s books I ever gave him, and he lived for three more years. In addition to Cloud Atlas, I believe there could be a another atlas, Story Atlas. This story was one of my father’s.

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