• Carolyn Steele Agosta

Red Books on the Shelf

I’ve mentioned my mom reading to us kids, and a bit about her own reading tastes (The Readers’ Digest Condensed Books). Later in life, she became a big fan of Louis L’Amour western novels, after they were recommended by her sister-in-law, Ruth Steele. However, I haven’t mentioned my dad’s reading style.


Dad didn’t read for pleasure per se. He read to be informed, which gave him some pleasure but seemed more often to piss him off. Mainly, he read the newspaper, which he did very religiously, for a not-religious man. I have lots of memories of him sitting in the living room after dinner, reading the Detroit News and getting just furious.


Several times, he felt compelled to write long letters to the editors, mainly about the difficulties of operating a small business while dealing with exasperating and ridiculous government regulations and interference (his words, not mine!). These letters sometimes ran to 3 or 4 pages, but occasionally, they did get published, although in a condensed form.


Dad rarely had the time for books, but now and then he did read them, either about his particular field – antique cars and the men who built them – or history. He owned the complete set of Churchill’s The Second World War, in six volumes, which were a nearly day-by-day record of Churchill’s activities during the war.


I inherited the set and over the course of 2018 and 2019, read them all. I was inspired to do so by the movie Dunkirk, the TV series The Crown, and several biopics about Churchill which came out just prior to and during this time. Previously, the books had just sat on my bookshelves as a memento of Dad.


The books are not easy to read. It took me two years to finish them because I could only read a couple of chapters at a time, after which my head began to spin. They’re not a straightforward account of the battles and events in the way most history books are – Churchill filled these books with sections of his own correspondence to all the various individuals who had charge of various aspects of the war. It’s mostly dry correspondence, not thrilling accounts of battle charges or touching scenes with emotional depth. They’re mostly about the business of war – the necessary logistics and long-range planning, although all through them you also get Churchill’s thoughts and concerns. It came across clearly that Churchill felt he was personally responsible for the successful pursuit of the war.


That’s probably what appealed to Dad. As a businessman, he was familiar with planning strategies, the allocation of resources, and the frustrations of never enough supply to meet demand. When I was a kid, I never thought about the fact that Dad ran his own business and carried all the responsibilities. He never seemed to doubt himself (although he certainly was crabby a lot!), and Mom trusted him implicitly, but as I grew older, I began to wonder about the toll it had taken.


My husband, Matt, went to work for Dad a few months after we married. It was a big change for us, because it also entailed moving from Michigan to North Carolina where Dad had moved the business and most of the family in 1975. Matt and Dad didn’t always see eye to eye, and I felt stuck in the middle.


Then, I read the Swann Trilogy by R. F. Delderfield. In these books, the main character, Adam Swann, creates his own business. Much of the story is specifically about his development of his business (and the people who work there, as well as his family), and the reader gains an appreciation of all the worries of a business owner who knows he’s personally responsible for the livelihood of many people and families besides his own.


It helped me understand my father. It helped me appreciate him more – not just as Dad, but as a man trying to create something that would survive and endure. He, too, felt personally responsible for this business, this creation he’d set in motion, this risk he’d asked his wife to share. It helped me understand he had fears he didn’t discuss. Worries that he kept private. Doubts about his own abilities. But he sure as heck wasn’t going to talk about these fears. When he and Matt knocked heads, I began to realize they had the same goals, but they came together from different directions. Fortunately, they came to realize it too and although it took a while for their differences to get sorted out, in the end, their shared goals created a good working relationship.


I have to say, it helped me understand my husband as a businessman, too.


And when I read Churchill’s books, I came away with a similar impression as I had with the Swann Trilogy books and the character of Adam Swann. Churchill felt personally responsible for England’s survival and endurance. He didn’t just work tirelessly, he also worked when he was tired, and when he was overwhelmed and sick at heart.


Yes, this is Churchill’s account, and I’m sure there were others who saw him and his decisions differently, but the books do really give the reader insight into how the war was prosecuted, all the conflicting needs and demands, and the intense focus on how to keep moving forward despite all the setbacks. It’s no wonder people today like to read about World War II – there’s huge inspiration to be found and an unquestioningly evil protagonist in Hitler and his minions. From the viewpoint of the American or British reader, a clear case of good vs evil and the lovely knowledge that we prevailed in the end.


I came away from these books impressed so much with the awareness that it took everyone working together, everyone paying attention to the details of their responsibilities, for the Allies to succeed. Even if each person did their job to the very best of their abilities, sometimes it wasn’t enough. Bad luck could intervene. Bad weather, the loss of an important shipment, garbled messages – even something like running out of gas, as Rommel discovered in North Africa, to the Allies advantage.


Yet, they persevered. As Churchill said, When you’re going through Hell, keep going! Good things can come from it, beyond just survival. In the years during the war and immediately after, writers got inspired and produced the following titles – The Robe by Lloyd C Douglas, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Animal Farm by George Orwell, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Mister Roberts by Thomas Heggen, Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, Tales of the South Pacific by James A Michener, and a particular childhood favorite of mine, Adam of the Road, by Elizabeth Janet Gray.


In writing these blog posts, I’m trying to inspire myself. I glance at those red book spines on my living room shelf and remember Churchill and remember Dad, and it keeps me going during this isolating and scary period.


Thanks for reading.

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