Give and take

My father was an incorrigible book-worm. His appetite for the printed word was voracious and as far as I could see, not very discriminating. If, on his way from kitchen to living room, he stumbled across an astronomy text, a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, or an Italian dictionary, he would drop whatever he was doing, curl up on the sofa, and be out of circulation for hours. About the only books not on his literary menu were novels and works dealing with his own profession, civil engineering. Applied science bored him; it had been intended only as a stopgap during the pursuit of his cherished goal, research physics. His dream had been to explore the atomic structure of the universe; alongside that, computing stress factors for a bridge in Utica or Des Moines seemed pretty small potatoes.

Hence, along with recollections of a stocky, thick-chested figure doing an acrobatic handstand along the water's edge at Coney Island (none of my friends' fathers could do that), one of my main filial memories is of the same man in vest and slippers alone in the living room, steel-rimmed glasses perched on his ample forehead, nose buried in a book.

My mother did not take kindly to this penchant - nor accept it as irreversible. She expended a lot of time on the subject, and came up with some fairly stirring speeches: ''When are you going to creep up out of the catacombs, Sam? You must have acquired the wisdom of Solomon by now. Wouldn't it be nice if you shared it once in a while?''

My father would raise his head, dimly pained, and with visible reluctance return to the family fold. They were temperamental opposites, my parents: Bertha as voluble and gregarious as Sam was silent. She never gave up on her campaign to make him a more social creature, and he, despite a handful of concessions - an occasional home musicale, a monthly card game with old cronies, an annual summertime stay ''in the mountains'' - never really changed. He still took his long solitary walks in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and still sank out of sight periodically behind some enormous tome from the Museum of Natural History or the Smithsonian Institution.

At the time, I was inclined to sympathize with him. Why should a man be harassed in his tireless quest for learning?

Over the years I have come to revise that judgment. In retrospect, my father takes on the outlines of a man whose stubborn intellectual consumerism was a disservice both to himself and to those around him. It is my mother who emerges as the wise one, an instinctive if unlabeled early-day ecologist. For ecology, it now seems evident to me, is not merely a matter of ensuring a harmonious exchange between nature and man in the aggregate; it also has a personal side. Every form of life - I no less than a giant redwood - has to develop a mutually rewarding interplay with the external world. One-way communication baits the passivity trap.

Looking back, I realize how much my own formative years were shadowed by that trap, and how narrowly I managed - with the help of well-wishers - to skirt it. My adolescence was marked by a tendency to get lost in libraries, museums, and movie houses, or to sit up half the night fiddling with a ''crystal set'' that might bring in a broadcast from far-off Pittsburgh. Only those insistent maternal warnings, I suspect, however subliminally registered, kept me anchored to a more human, actively involved reality. Later, at college, a thoughtful roommate swung me toward sports, theater, and fraternity dances. And after graduation, an uncle who sensed my predilection for ivory towers ferreted out a job for me on a rowdy New York tabloid.

That adventure momentarily backfired when it stimulated me to such a wild burst of screenwriting activity in London that a veteran director had to bring me up short: ''You're writing from your finger tips!'' Thereafter I was aware that it wasn't enough just to avoid stonelike silence; one had to be on guard also against the opposite extreme of glib profuseness.

But the decades that followed, with their steady proliferation of channels for withdrawal, have reemphasized my mother's point. The stream of publications that once absorbed my father's attention has swollen today to a torrent of television images, videocassettes, and computer games; the 1940s comic vision of Fred Allen, who foresaw a generation ''with eyeballs the size of grapefruits'' and minimal gray matter, no longer seems so comic.

Caught like all of us in this media cloudburst, I struggle to work out a balance between intake and output. Ecologically speaking, I see myself as neither a central factor in the creator's universe nor a meaningless speck at its edges . . . but a contributing part of a dynamic whole. From this perception flows a series of guidelines governing my connections with people, nature, and ideas.

I have friends who regard me as a repository for confidences and others to whom I turn for advice. On my balcony hangs a feeder for itinerant hummingbirds; they sip nectar, I reap the pleasure of their helicopter dance among the potted marigolds. If chores at the typewriter grow heavy, I find refreshment in the Chumash Indian cave drawings dotting the canyons above Santa Barbara. I tap various sources to keep up with the news, and at intervals try to voice some response.

All this is more tidy in theory, of course, than in operation. But it does provide a framework, at least, for a personal program that at its best has room for outdoor lunches and Puccini; for children's verses, table tennis, and Middle East commentary.

I think often of my father, and of the circumscribed life he led. I can understand his affection for books; soaking up ideas is wonderful. Sharing them, I suspect, is even better. To what degree he was content in his inward-focused universe, I have no way of knowing. It was one of many things he never discussed.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.