In the winter week between Christmas and New Year’s, I thought about my early days of parenthood two decades ago, a time when I’d occasionally take a break from Saturday chores to watch Book TV.
Although my daughter was still too young to grasp the network captioning, she always knew if I’d tuned into C-SPAN’s block of weekend programming about nonfiction authors. When I once asked how she could recognize Book TV so easily, her answer was sublime. “It’s always one person talking for a long time,” my daughter told me, “and nobody ever interrupts.”
That seemed a perfect way to describe C-SPAN’s series of book talks, in which authors do, in fact, speak their minds without having to yell over the din of competing voices. It was such a striking departure from the country’s usual diet of political shouting matches and reality show rivalries that my tiny daughter noticed it immediately, as if she’d been surprised by the arrival of a rare tropical bird.
That strange, wonderful gift, the presence of one person talking without interruption, is why I read in the first place — and why I welcome books into my life with special pleasure at the quiet close of each year, in those days after the Christmas rush has subsided, with the new year yet to arrive.
Given the calamities and conflicts of 2017, the respite of reading at the bottom of the year was more welcome than ever. Sitting in an armchair beside a tree that shaded a scatter of opened presents, I discovered, as I do every December, that the lights strung across our fir made a perfect reading lamp.
What was stacked on the end table this holiday season? I dipped into “Franklin D. Roosevelt,” historian Robert Dallek’s new biography of FDR. There was also “Where We Lived,” an inimitable series of linked autobiographical essays by former Washington Post critic Henry Allen; “Madison Park,” Eric L. Motley’s marvelous memoir about how a small, nurturing Alabama town launched him into national politics and public policy; and “How Not to Get Rich,” Alan Pell Crawford’s comic survey of Mark Twain’s financial misadventures. “Sea Power,” a survey of naval strategy by retired Adm. James Stavridis, helped filled out the list.
I started, too, “The Accidental President,” A.J. Baime’s story of how Harry Truman adapted after being thrust into the nation’s highest office when FDR died. He had not been to college and was considered by many to be a lightweight. But Truman was a big reader of history, a great resource for any leader.
My yuletide reading gave me something I often found lacking in the news cycle this year: a diverse group of voices, each being heard without screaming, thanks to the miracle of words on a page.
That’s what books can do — in this year, and any year that includes readers ready to indulge a mind beyond their own.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.