When Bette Davis famously said, “Old age is not for sissies,” the Hollywood icon knew what she was talking about.
After recent eye surgery, reading and typing has become too difficult for me to continue writing this column by myself. The inability to read effortlessly has been hard, but I won’t allow what I hope is a temporary disability to force me into retirement. Next week I will begin writing this column with a co-author, sharing the byline with my son, Nick Hentoff.
As a young man in Boston, I learned early in life never to take reading for granted. I learned this lesson when I was introduced by a friend to his great-grandfather, who was born a slave in the antebellum South, where it was illegal to teach slaves to read. The ancient man, I was told, had spent his long life reading his way through whole libraries.
Small, startlingly thin and as straight as a steel ruler, the former slave sat staring at me until I wondered desperately what I was supposed to say. Then, with his tight bronze face still impassive, he said he knew I had studied Greek at Boston Latin School and asked my views on Homer, wondering what a great pleasure it must have been to read him in the original. Not having found it any sort of pleasure, because Greek had been taught like math at Boston Latin School, I mumbled my memory of exaltation.
Clearly disappointed by my half-hearted answer — and probably annoyed by my questions on early jazz (as if that was the only music he would know anything about) — the ancient man dismissed me with a flick of his hand, as a scholar dismisses a dilettante unworthy of his continued attention. As I’ve grown older, I like to think I came to understand what reading meant to the ancient man.
For more than 80 years, reading in print has been as natural for me as breathing, and as exciting as flying over a landscape of ideas. Someone reviewing one of the more than 30 books I have written described me as a “voracious reader.” I wrote about the genesis of my life-long love of reading in my memoir, “Boston Boy”:
“I remember them now as ugly books. All had the same cheap brown binding — an institutional color, like the paint in waiting rooms for jurors. There were no illustrations, and the print seemed to get dimmer with each reading.
“But those were my books, bought at fifty cents a week — plus a coupon from the Hearst daily, the Boston American — out of my afterschool and weekend earnings. They were the classics! The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Last of the Mohicans, Ivanhoe, Tom Sawyer, and other hallmarks of a sophisticated library.
“I was addicted to books. Both the reading of them and the physical possession of them … Soon the books burst out of my bedroom and took over nearly all the wall space in the front hall of our apartment as well as the living room.”
As an author and columnist, I’ve led a life in which not a moment that could be occupied by writing or reading was wasted. I surrounded myself with the tools of my trade. I subscribed to numerous newspapers, every important magazine of ideas, and several medical journals and law reviews. Decades before pedestrians wandered the streets reading their smartphones, I could be found slowly navigating the streets of Greenwich Village with my eyes glued to the newspaper in my hand.
If I wanted a new book that wasn’t yet available for sale, it took only a telephone call to the publisher and it arrived a few days later. I no longer had to rely on newspaper coupons to purchase my books. Every week the mail would bring free review copies of books on jazz, politics, science and history.
In recent years, my wife brags about the vast library she carries effortlessly on her Kindle, but I cherish physical books I can hold — that I delight in writing in, arguing with the authors and rereading as I learn more about the subjects elsewhere.
I’d dig daily into newspapers and magazines until my fingers and clothing were stained with newsprint and ink. A prospector with pen and pocket knife, I’d underline surprises that challenged me, scribble furious notes to myself and then, like a ritual sacrifice, rend articles from the body of the paper to occupy one of the countless research files that filled my office from floor to ceiling.
I don’t dig skimming through life.
The process will now be different, but the work of this column will continue.