The Millions

Requiem for a Reader

Now that my dad is gone, I find that almost all my memories of him are of him in motion: picking sweet corn so fast in the wet Wisconsin heat that sweat dripped off his nose; climbing nimbly on and off tractors to check on the machinery’s workings; marching in a protest against governmental involvement in agricultural pricing, shaking his finger in a petty official’s face.

My first memory of my father as a reader was him telling me to hurry up; it was almost time to silflay. Being maybe eight or nine at the time, I had no idea what he was talking about until he explained that “silflay” meant “to eat.” Did he explain then that the word was used by rabbits, in Richard Adams’s hugely popular anthropomorphic novel Watership Down? I can’t remember, but I think not. I simply filed the word away as another synonym. No one in our household had time to read to me, and no one in my grade school offered any literary allusions. Our school librarian shuttled between several schools, making our library a mostly self-service. So when I finally read Watership Down in middle school, intrigued by Dad’s references, it was a revelation.

You have to love a book about bunnies that opens with a quote from Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon. “The stench is like a breath from the tomb.” Goddamn. Compelled by his brother Fiver’s premonition that their warren is in grave danger, practical and action-oriented Hazel decides to strike out with Fiver and several of their friends to start a new warren. Completely caught up in the adventure and Hazel’s plans for his new home, I got lost in the book. I followed him across the English countryside. I followed him on daring raids on farms to add female rabbits to their company. Hazel was a natural leader, and I knew how his compatriots felt; I would have followed him anywhere.

Reading was a completely satisfying experience. But it was also a

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