Today, for the first time in my life, I found myself wondering what will happen to my books when I die. When I inherited my apartment, most of my grandparents’ stuff came along with it, including hundreds of books. Over the past five years, I’ve given most of them away, although a few still remain as reminders of who they were and what their interests were. But I got rid of them one shopping bag at a time, not in one united collection.
I went to two thrift stores today in Germantown. They are actually part of the same organization, but one location carries clothes, dishes and collectibles while the other carries mostly furniture. The one thing they have in common is that they both carry books. As I stood in front of the metal shelves at the furniture location, I began to realize that I was looking at a vast portion of one individual’s library. They were all books that had something to do with Judaism. There were titles addressing when Christians and Jews marry, others about the struggles of being a Rabbi, even detective novels where Rabbi’s are solving mysteries. Scholem Aleichem was widely represented, as well as Isaac Bashevis Singer. I stood there, fascinated by the fact that I could discern so much about this individual from the books that were scattered among the three tall shelves.
When I got to the book section of the second store, I realized that several more boxes of my Jewish friend’s books had been brought here. I started to pull them off the shelf one by one, looking to see if I could learn anything more through the things that get left behind in books. In one the name Rabinowitz was inscribed and I started imagining a history for this person. I wondered if he or she had died, or if they had been forced to go to a nursing home. Maybe they had passed years before and their spouse had just recently been convinced to give up the house to go live with their grown daughter in New Jersey. I couldn’t believe that no one else had wanted this library, this specialized collection of books that touched on all levels of Judaism.
For a moment, I started thinking wildly about buying them all, about keeping a part of a stranger’s life intact for as many more years as I could. I quickly remembered that the real estate available on my bookshelves is in very great demand, and that housing a collection of dusty books that I have very little actual interest in reading (I’m more interested in the person behind them) would not be a practical move. In the end, I bought just two, a couple of squat paperbacks by Isaac Bashevis Singer that I’ve always been interested in reading.
I hope that other people who study those shelves looking for literary treasure will notice the life that was lived through the books that were read, owned and loved, like I did.
(If anyone out there is interested in picking up a few books at very low prices on a vast array of Jewish topics, let me know and I’ll point you in the right direction).