Recently, I packed a suitcase and boarded a plane, leaving Oxford, England, where I’ve been a graduate student for the past four years, to visit my mother and father in Los Angeles, where I’ll finish writing my Ph.D. thesis. My folks moved to their L.A. home after I left for college. I didn’t grow up in this house, or even in this city. But I came here to finish my thesis, because this is where my parents and their bookshelves are. That means that this place is home.
We moved a lot when I was younger. No single location, no old apartment or childhood town contains all the memories of my youth and the spirit of my family. But these bookshelves do.
My father is a mystery novelist and an autodidact. As a young man, he honed his craft with hours of reading, even when he was a struggling writer working multiple jobs. He was determined to write hard-boiled genre fiction, so he learned from the masters: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain. He analyzed other great writers, too: Dante, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot. He read late into the night until he squinted from exhaustion. Then he placed those books on these shelves, where they now stand alongside his own bestsellers.
One day, back when times were hard, my father saw a girl hitchhiking on the streets of Berkeley, California. He gave her a ride home and wound up marrying her. That woman, my mother, is the most sincere lover of novels I have ever known. Nobody I know relishes a well-plotted story or a vivid character portrait as she does. She is also a skilled cook, whose instincts in the kitchen come from a deep wellspring of unforced affection. She has published compilations of her recipes, many of which were staples in my packed school lunches. Her cookbooks and the novels she treasures are on these shelves, too.
My parents’ books are not organized according to any discernible logic—and that’s by design. Thus, while searching for a particular book, they will notice five other unrelated books that they’re eager to read. And so practically every wall of every house they have lived in features a concatenation of thrillers and culinary manuals, of pulpy novellas and Greek tragedies. Within my reach as I write are The Creative Lunchbox (recipes by my mother), Classic Crimes (stories by the Scottish lawyer William Roughead), and Dumas’s Camille.
It was wonderful to come of age among these books, to run wild through them and develop my own interest in literature. I discovered my father’s thrillers and read all his role models; he told me how painstakingly he had studied them, and that’s how I learned what a work ethic looks like. I met my mother’s favorite characters and went on all her old adventures; she told me how real they were to her, and that’s how I learned to connect with other souls through words.
This was my education, in the truest sense. It was not just about trying to become well-read. These shelves bear witness to a literary passion so spacious and unaffected that it delights in Ulysses but has no disdain for Tarzan. They recall the generosity of spirit that lets a bookish kid borrow your favorite editions (knowing that he will mutilate and sometimes lose them) because he obviously adores them. Most of all, my parents’ shelves represent the union of two distinct individuals and one remarkable book collection—the author of cookbooks fused with the author of crime novels, the woman who loves to read stories united with the man who lives to write them.
That’s why I came here to finish my thesis. This is the largest and most daunting writing project I have undertaken. It will inaugurate my own career, such as it may be. I get up every morning and work hard, like my father; I try to read and write with humane insight, like my mother. I am surrounded by their books, and I hope to make them proud. It’s good to be home.