Hippie Squared: Penetrating the Wizard’s Bookshelf [Father’s Day]

When I was a kid my dad was a private detective. He was a spy. He was a master scientist and a crusader for justice. He was a wizard. His bookshelves held the keys to his powers. They loomed above me there in his den where I slept when I visited him on weekends. Jacked up on Pepsi and potato chips, I would lie awake for hours scanning the titles. They held secrets. They held clues. They held knowledge, wisdom, spells and formulas.

I memorized their titles and the swirling art on their covers. I read the back cover blurbs, the quotes from critics, the forewords and prefaces and afterwords. I scanned their indexes for the power words and concepts. I dipped into their contents and read a sentence here, a paragraph there. How could one person master it all, I wondered. How could I ever hope to be as well-read, as well-informed, as penetrating and wise.

I loved to watch my dad, the 70s divorced bachelor professor, hold forth at parties. I liked to watch the eyes turned toward him, the people assembled around him suspended on the line of his conversation. It always seemed to me that whatever the voices in the room, my dad’s came out definitive. “Of course,” I would think, when I heard him lay out with clarity the injustices of racism, segregation, chauvinism. He would eagerly argue for the Equal Rights Amendment or Affirmative Action against anyone, of any race, man or woman. He’d flay Nixon with glee. The Vietnam War, once he got ahold of it, was transparently a mistake, a waste.

He seemed to gain stature—like Gandalf in Tolkein’s descriptions of how he would transform from a bent old man into an imposing figure when riled to action—when he spoke with passion about knowing your own biases, about being aware of the biases of others, about keeping an open mind. He seemed to sit in an over-arching non-judgement that apprehended every angle of vision, that took in every argument, that was able to hold each subject up to the light and turn it until he found the key question that would unlock its essential truth. He was my greatest hero.

Even after the divorce my mom would sometimes talk about how she fell in love with him. At the University of Cincinnati where they met, they would go to a bar off campus. He’d take up one side of a political or philosophical question, mount an argument and take on all comers, and win. Then he’d turn around, take up the other side of the same question, argue against exactly the same friends and bystanders, and win again.

My dad had heroes too. Martin Luther King. Sherlock Holmes. Gandalf. Among the philosophical and political debates at parties he also had fun spinning a scholarly tale of the career of Holmes, his supposed death at Reichenbach Falls and his resurrection to combat Professor Moriarty. He’d talk about the class he developed at Western Michigan University where he was a PhD professor in Political Science: “Political Science Fiction,” it was called, and it discussed different political systems through the alternate societies and futures imagined by Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert and McCaffrey.

He would wax philosophical on what The Lord of the Rings had to say about the nature of power. Here the character of Tom Bombadil held the key. Bombadil didn’t even make it into the movies. He’s an early detour on the hobbits’ journey with nothing to add to the spine-plot of the trilogy; an almost comical figure of the forest who lives in a little cottage, but is older than almost any other character, can speak to the trees and the animals, who sings and dances and picks flowers for his lady. But his power is vast and mysterious and he’s utterly removed from the affairs and wars of elves and orcs and men. My dad maintained that Bombadil was the most powerful character of all, not because he could assert power over others, but because no one had power over him.

Often when I’d visit my dad we’d spend hours in the quiet intimacy of reading together in the same room, he in his recliner, me on the blue fuzzy couch, each with our full Pepsi and our bag of potato chips. I loved to go to a bookstore with him to hunt for the tales that held the clues and secrets, that spun the hero myths that powered us on our respective quests for justice. As I got older and acquired my own sources of money, I’d go to bookstores by myself, used and new, spend hours haunting the aisles, acquiring my own sacred texts to line my own wizard’s apprentice bookshelves.

I moved to California. He remarried. His books were relegated to the family room in the basement, with the TV and the extra refrigerator stocked with Coke and Diet Coke by this time, and beer. But every time I visited, I always took a moment sometime during the trip to commune with his books, to scan the familiar titles, seeing the covers in my mind’s eye, taking a certain secret thrill from just being there with them.

So it was that on July 4th, 1997 I was sent down to the basement for extra beer to fuel the croquet matches out on the sunny lawn during a family reunion, and I came back out of that wizard’s library with a revelation—one of the great revelations of my life.

I’d introduced my dad to Red Hook ESB, so that was the house beer for the family reunion. Already well under its influence I danced down the stairs, ran into the family room, threw open the door of the extra refrigerator, basked in the blast of cold air as antidote to the hot humid Michigan summer outside. I grabbed two six packs and turned to leave, but I stopped. I turned with affection to the bookshelves, for just a quick nostalgic glance. I saw them as if for the first time.

“Son of a bitch,” I said out loud. “It’s just a bunch of science fiction and mysteries.”

The secret of the secrets was how pedestrian they really were. The vast eclectic library that I had always somehow seen superimposed over this one was a figment of the imagination my dad’s enthusiasm inspired. Behind the wizard’s bookshelf was a man, a professor who liked to escape into hero stories. The Alexandrian Library of my fantasies was just a second-hand paperback bookshop.

When I returned to California I looked over my own bookshelves with newly opened eyes, and I quickly came to two conclusions. For eclecticism, for range of knowledge, for span of literary type and quality, they beat my dad’s bookshelves all to hell. But my dad had no doubt read at least 99% of the books on his shelves, whereas I had read maybe 20% of mine. Subconsciously I had assembled my books not so much to read them as to take on the books on my dad’s shelves in symbolic father-son combat. But the advanced wizard makes use of every least tool at hand, every stone, every feather, every subtle current of air.

That left me with a deeper mystery that I pondered for a few years before it unraveled itself not in a sudden revelation but a gradual dawning of awareness. My dad wasn’t made smart or wise by the books he read. The intelligence and wisdom I’d always seen in him were there. He brought them to the books. He engaged the books he read, he inquired of them, he pulled them apart and carried pieces of them wherever he went. He analyzed political systems when he read science fiction. He inquired of the laws of power when he quested in realms of fantasy. He ingested a passion for justice and the patient acquisition of knowledge when he traveled dark byways with Sherlock Holmes and Travis McGee.

And I reflected that the key to his wizard’s art, the key that I had learned as his apprentice, was not the facts, not the answers, not even the ideas, but the questions. Often I’ve been in a room of people with more knowledge than I, with more degrees and credentials and experience. But I’m still able to add something to the dialogue. I listen to their talk, and I take the subject in my mind and I hold it up to the light, and it seems almost to have three dimensions, because my dad taught me his wizard’s way of seeing the planes, the angles, the hidden depths, of ideas and systems and paradigms. And so I’m able to turn the thing this way and that, always looking for that microscopic sliver of a magic key hole, into which I can slide the question that will open it all up in a new way.

The secret tool of the wizard, I realized, was not a spell or a formula. The sparks from the wizard’s magic wand that light up the room and transform or reveal the nature of things are the questions that nobody else thinks to ask. I’m not sure my dad even knew he was teaching me how to divine the incantations that release those questions, but I’ll always be grateful that somehow, to some small extent that has served me well in my own travels in dark ways and light, he did teach me that ancient, arcane art.