Writer’s Workshop: Dad’s Books

When I was growing up, we had a modest book collection, many of which were ones that Dad had read. I always had the impression that I wasn’t to touch them. I don’t know why; I guess it was the idea that they were his books, and that, if he wanted me to read them, he’d let me know it was okay. He died before he got around to that.

So, anyway, the books sat on the shelves in the living room, and I would look at them sitting there, but never had the nerve to pull them down off the shelf and read them. I didn’t think I was supposed to. So I would see the books like Moss Hart’s Act One, John Gunther’s Inside Russia Today, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Elick Moll’s Seidman & Son, Allen Drury’s A Shade of Difference, and one whose name I was sure was Bright Ieaf, because that was what was on the spine. I had no idea what an “Ieaf” was. I didn’t even know how to pronounce it.

One day, I screwed up the courage to pull that one off the shelf, and discovered that the book was Bright Leaf, by Foster Fitz-Simmons. The gold leaf had worn off the horizontal stroke on the L, I guess.

Bright Leaf, by Foster Fitz-Simmons, the edition my father had.

Fitz-Simmons was a dancer by profession, and taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, deep in the heart of Tobacco Road. Bright Leaf was his one major work as an author (maybe even his only work as an author). It was loosely based on the life of the Duke family, who were big in the tobacco industry. They put up the funding of what became Duke University in Durham, NC. It was made into a movie in 1950 which starred Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall, and Patricia Neal.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the time. Once I learned the real name of the book, I quickly put it back on the shelf. I didn’t want to get caught reading Dad’s books, as though they had a curse on them. Actually, I was scared that I’d get in trouble. I remembered the summer that Mom read Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, which had been turned into a movie that year. I asked her if I could read it after her, and she was emphatic. “No, you my not! It’s an adult book!” Naturally, I thought that extended to all the books in the house except for the ones that we were specifically told we could read, or that were assigned to us at school.

The books made the move from Chicago to Northfield with us, where they were placed in the bookshelves in the living room. And they sat there as well. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been an issue to read them by then, but I was never sure wth Mom.

A couple of years before she died, I was in Chicago for business, and Mom said “Do you want any of your Dad’s books?”

I was dumbfounded. She had never said anything about them. “Really?”

“Of course. Why?”

“Well, I’ve looked at them all my life, but I thought reading them was off limits.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Johnny! I wish you had read them. Your Dad loved them, and he would have been thrilled to know you wanted to read them. Take a few home with you, and read them, and when you’re done, pass them on. They’re just things.”

I picked a bunch of them, but Bright Leaf wasn’t one of them. And I read them, then donated them to the library. They were definitely a product of the times in which they were written, but were still good reads.

The moral of the story: make sure your kids know it’s okay to read the books you do as soon as they’re ready for them. In fact, put the books in their hands.

22 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Dad’s Books

    1. Thanks! I’m sure Dad would have suggested I read his books, had he lived longer. He had good taste in reading material. And I’m sure he would have made a point of telling us they were “our” books, not just “his.”

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  1. Grandma gave us some books from his youth, true “dime store novels,” which I read and cherished: “Poppy Ott and the Prancing Pancake” and “Jerry Todd: Pirate.” They involved adventures like driving a boat powered by a rebuilt car engine and publishing a newspaper where all the headlines get mixed up. I believe the edict on the books that you remember was created by the three of us defacing a copy of “The Adventures of Marco Polo” when we were ordered to sit quietly in the living room on Glenwood and we hatched a detailed escape plan on how we were going to get back to the den.


    1. Was that the book? I didn’t remember the name, but remember the incident, which was on Magnolia, by the way, because we were watching TV and horsing around when he delivered the edict. I remember we all switched places before Dad came back in the room, and he had no idea, or at least wasn’t letting on.

      I found a collection of Victor Appleton “Tom Swift” stories (http://a.co/2qL7BPW) a while back. I remember “Tom Swift and his Motor-Cycle” was one of Dad’s books we got from Grandma. Remember the Leo Edwards books (Jerry Todd, Poppy Ott, Tuffy Beans) all had a section at the end where Mr. Edwards featured letters from his young readers? I remember there was a kid who sent him a picture, and Edwards remarked “There aren’t any flies on this boy!” The paper was real cheap, too, like newsprint, because they were printed during the war and paper was rationed…


  2. I agree whole-heartedly with your sentiments about kids and books. I vividly remember my Mom forcing me to return a book I’d borrowed from an older friend – Carrie, by Stephen King. I don’t know what age I was, but I’m sure I was still in elementary school. This may be ONE of the reasons I have a complete collection of SK’s books, many of them first editions, a few special editions, but none signed sigh). Anyway, if I figure if a person CAN read a book they should be allowed to unless it has graphic violence or sex. I’ve been shoving books into my kids’ hands (and now my grandchildrens’) pretty much since birth. And it saddens me that you didn’t get a chance to discuss your father’s favorite books with him. Neither of my parents were ever much on reading for pleasure, only for educational purposes. A person’t favorite books say a lot about them.


    1. Same here: I’ve read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and understand why Mom didn’t want me reading them when I was nine. They aren’t exactly great works of literature, but pretty good reads nonetheless. There was really nothing in any of the books we had at home that was unsuitable, although not all of them were age-appropriate.


  3. I love this story and I think your dad is proud of you for reading his books and becoming so interested in books and writing. I’m so thankful that my parents made sure that we always received books for Christmas and birthdays and were never barred from picking up a book. My mom, in fact, made sure we looked at books since she saw books being burned first by the Nazi regime and then the Communist regime


    1. It’s one of those cases of “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” You don’t realize how vital books and reading are until you have that right forcibly taken from you.


  4. Hi John – how interesting to read about the ‘historical novel’ on the Duke family … and I’ve noted it – as my family had tobacco connections in this country … interesting to piece pieces together … whether I’ll ever read it or not is another matter – I found a fairly lengthy review of it. Pity we didn’t communicate more as family when we were kids with our parents … but life is life – cheers Hilary


    1. That’s true, and when I started working with the genealogy of my family I wanted to kick myself for never talking to the older folks about the past. But, what can you do?


  5. A wonder if your Dad had any idea what a mystery he was creating by not allowing you to thumb through them. I like that he cared for them so much, but the suspense of not knowing what was IN the books would have eaten away at me!


    1. I think he would have encouraged it as we got older. Dad loved to read. Mom did, too, but her tastes were different. I think she was more worried we’d knock something off the shelves and break it.


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