April 29, 2013

Buried with the LRB


In a long remembrance of her father in the Financial Times, Julia Hobsbawm, daughter of the celebrated English historian Eric Hobsbawm, recalls her father’s need to be almost constantly reading.

“When he had hospital appointments and was waiting around,” she writes, “he always chose a pocketbook-size book to read in case he was kept in. Food he could do without; ideas not.”

As evidence, she recalls many stories of what might be called obsessive reading.

My mother always used to tell me the story that when I was born, in 1964, she told the nurse that the way to recognise my father was to “go out into the corridor and find the one not pacing up and down but the one reading”. He did apparently once read a telephone directory in a hotel room in Seville instead of the Bible, and got as far as H.

Two years before his death, Hobsbawm brought a book to the hospital that he didn’t quite like.

“I managed to bring a most turgid book in with me,” he said apologetically. “Would you mind getting me something better?” It turned out that the book he had picked up, assuming it was the last he would ever hold, was a German edition of The Brothers Karamazov, and with the crisis over it was now not to his liking.

Knowing his weakness for thrillers – one book wall is covered in the Penguin crime paperbacks with the green spines, his old Ed McBains and more recently Elmore Leonards – I brought him in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. It got him through the hospital tedium and even prompted a rather racy discussion about how much marital bed-hopping it featured. “Too much,” he declared.

He managed to escape his stint in the hospital with Steig Larsson, and his final book turned out to be the more appropriate Plays & Players by George Bernard Shaw.

But, even in death, his daughter wanted to be sure he wouldn’t be without something to read.

Our final goodbye as a family at Highgate Cemetery was marked mainly in silence. It was cold, but autumn was still flaming away in the trees in Waterlow Park next door. Earlier, as I was buying a small bunch of flowers to lay on the grave, I had an overwhelming sentimental urge to give my father one last thing to read: it seemed impossible that he would never breathe in ideas again. I bought the London Review of Books, which he had regularly contributed to in life and which featured, as it happened, his friend Karl Miller’s obituary of him. We laid the copy, fresh and folded, on top, and then the gravedigger finished his work.

Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.