Mayim Bialik on “Hopscotch” by Julio Cortázar
“A form of communication”
The following is an excerpt from “The Books That Changed My Life” edited by Bethanne Patrick. To share the book that changed your life, visit TheBooksThatChangedMyLife.com
I come from a family of readers. My parents are both English teachers. I inherited my father’s library, an amazing legacy, and I am currently designing a library/bedroom around those fifty boxes of books.
It’s an amazing legacy, but a sad one, too: my father died four months ago, from cancer.
In the last month of his life, when he was in hospice, I started reading to him. We didn’t get very far, but it was an amazing experience, very, very emotionally dense and very beautiful. My mother would drift in and out as I read to my dad, and it became something that gave shape to very difficult days.
The book I read to my father was Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar. The novel was a huge influence on my dad. He even wrote a letter to Cortázar in 1965—and got a response. That letter is still inside my father’s 1966 copy of the book that he took from the library.
Reading to my dad was a way to give him a sense of calm. Words and music were so important to him, so I tried to give that to him. At first we would sing together, but it became harder and harder for him to participate. I knew reading out loud would be soothing. He would request it, and sometimes I knew it was too heavy, but it really served as kind of a placeholder—and even when he couldn’t actively communicate, it was a form of communication, because I was reading to him what he had passed to me.
After he died, my mother dropped Hopscotch in our local library’s book drop, not realizing it was my dad’s purloined copy. I went and asked for its return, and I’m glad I did. Besides the author’s letter, in the pocket where the library card goes my father had a stack of about a dozen index cards, the kind he made notes on constantly. One of the cards just has the word “enmeshed.” He’s been gone for four months and it feels like both an eternity and an instant.
My dad was the firstborn American in his family, and he rebelled against his traditional immigrant background by loving really, really esoteric stuff, like Cortázar. He was his family’s liberal, their broad thinker, and for my parents’ generation the possibility of this new world led naturally to becoming a teacher if you weren’t going to be a doctor or a lawyer. My father loved words, this language that his parents didn’t even really speak very well. He was really an artist, a bohemian poet, but although he never thought of himself as someone following a poet’s career, he maintained his awe of literature, and reading for reading’s sake, his entire life.
Even when I was a teen and spending most of my time reading scripts, that was no excuse to fall behind in my reading. My father would make reading lists for me, lists that I would become determined to conquer, and that became a huge part of our life together, something that linked us; books told the story of our family, in a way.
I still read a lot, although given my profession as a scientist and my busy life as a parent I read a lot more nonfiction now—including books on meditation. I’m reading one by Sharon Salzberg right now. I try to keep up with The New Yorker and Harper’s, magazines that my father loved so much. I do read to my children, but I grew up in a home where Dr. Seuss was considered a little silly, so the books I choose for them tend to be a bit more wordy and narrative driven.
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Mayim Bialik has a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA; she also plays a neuroscientist on TV, in The Big Bang Theory. Bialik, who starred in the 1990s sitcom Blossom, lives with her two sons in Los Angeles.