by Lisa Peet
Is there anything more intimate than cleaning out another person’s home—deciding which of her possessions, collected with love or without thought, is important enough to keep; and what, then, to do with the rest?
Aside from the fact that it usually comes with some degree of sadness, the process requires a set of emotional gymnastics, a series of shifts from empathy to self-interest and back again: This thing is archival or an important memory marker; this meant something to her so it now means something to me; this did its duty but now can be set free; this has no conceivable use for anyone, ever. Family photographs are easy (keep). Recipe clippings from the 1980s are easy (dump). Books—or rather a library, as opposed to a half shelf of bestsellers in the corner of the family room—are almost never simple. A library embodies the trajectory of a life and intellect, and to sort, Solomon-like, through someone else’s story in books is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
The process, the responsibility, intensifies when this person is your mother.
It took my sister and me under a minute to split up the labor of cleaning out our mother’s apartment when we finally moved her to a nursing home. Her dementia had reached the point where even a full-time home health aide couldn’t give her the care she needed, and when mom landed in the hospital after refusing to take a round of antibiotics for an infection, it was time.
Fortunately, we found a great facility that accepted Medicaid. Unfortunately, that gave us a hard deadline for selling her co-op: once her Medicare-allotted time ran out, Medicaid would then siphon off all her money, including what we needed to pay the mortgage. We had a couple of months; sentiment would have to take a back seat to expediency.
So my sister and I agreed: she would go through mom’s clothes, jewelry, and furniture; we’d split the kitchen; and I’d sort the office and art supplies, general paper ephemera—magazines, recipes, photo albums—and her hundreds of books. This last not only because I’m a “book person,” but because I had a long-term and complex relationship with those books of hers. Which is, I guess, exactly what being a book person means.
Books had always been a language my mother and I shared when she was well: we gave them to each other as gifts, borrowed, traded, talked about what we’d read. Then, as her ten-year descent into dementia accelerated, her books took on a separate identity for me, their simple presence becoming a sort of animal comfort. Whenever I found myself at a loss with her—when she snapped at me and told me to leave, or, some years later, would doze off mid-sentence, or, even later, when her aide would be cleaning her in the bathroom as mom screeched and swore and swung—I would stand by the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and read the titles over and over, cataloging them in my mind the way you rub a worry stone in your pocket.
Her library was unself-conscious in the extreme—potboiler mysteries filed alphabetically with classics, paperbound galleys next to handsome hardcovers and golden-age mass-market paperbacks from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Her frayed clothbound sets of philosophy and history ruled the top shelves, with oversized art books stacked horizontally on the bottom. Many were gifts from me.
Across the room, lined up on end tables, were more recent acquisitions—offerings to tempt her back to reading after the concussion that started her decline, though I’m not sure she ever got to them. I gave her Geraldine Brooks‘s People of the Book, Jean-Dominique Bauby‘s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. From my nephew, Peter Carey‘s Theft, Carlos Ruiz Zafón‘s The Shadow of the Wind. From I-don’t-know-who, The Help—which, bless her, mom would have adored. She was a sucker for stories of love and kindness redeeming all, and equally unconcerned with subtexts of class, race, or politics of any kind.
In fact, for someone who so loved the intellectual intricacies of philosophy, mom flinched at anything morally difficult. Deeply non-confrontational in real life, she let her various blind spots carry over into her intellectual life. She didn’t like to follow politics, she told me when I was a child, because “everyone is so nasty.” And while she approved of broad-brush liberal issues—civil rights, the women’s movement—she did not like anything that made her uncomfortable: cruelty, suffering, ugliness, the moral conundrum of otherwise good people behaving badly. The notes I retrieved from her philosophy books, scrawled on bits and pieces of paper, stuck firmly with the epistemological: what is reality, what is the nature of consciousness, how do I fit in with the world?—phrases and questions written out in her neat, even script, connected by endless ellipses.
For all our lively highbrow discussions, there were places we just did not go. Politics was one; religion another. My father, raised an Orthodox Jew, was a vehement atheist, and religion was something of a dirty word in our house. My mother seemed to have no strong ties to religion, or faith of any kind, even after my parents divorced and she was free to practice what she liked.
But I wonder, now, if the enforced nonbelief of her marriage to my father was a loss for her. She grew up in a loosely observant Jewish tradition, but I never got a sense of whether those habits—which carried through to her first marriage but not her union with my father—were a source of comfort or a burden. Even more, I wonder what, beyond her enjoyment of solipsistic thought puzzles, comprised her inner life. For all our shared talk of art, literature, anthropology, science, and the general nature of the cosmos that sparked in me a deep hunger for knowledge as a child and young adult, I don’t recall our conversations going deep. Nor did Mom and I go to the mats, ever, when we disagreed. I regretted this the moment that possibility disappeared with her cogency—what had I been thinking, not to push her to explain her beliefs, not to help me figure out some of my own intellectual lineage?
In his recent family memoir, House of Twenty Thousand Books (New York Review Books, 2015), journalist and professor Sasha Abramsky draws on a similar process of reading bookshelves—as well as books—as a way in to the heart and mind of his beloved grandfather, Chimen Abramsky.
The son and grandson of learned rabbis, Chimen was a renowned collector of modern Judaica and socialist literature—“modern” referring to anything published in the past 500 years—consisting of books, prints, and manuscripts. He eventually amassed an enormous private library that included Karl Marx’s handwritten letters, an early edition of The Communist Manifesto annotated by Marx and Engels, an early 16-century Bomberg Bible (one of the first printed Hebrew bibles), and first editions of Spinoza and Descartes.
The London row house where Chimen lived with his wife, Mimi, was double-shelved, floor to ceiling, with books collected over a lifetime, and after Chimen’s death in 2010, Sasha revisited that collection, room by room and shelf by shelf—to paint a portrait of his grandfather as both scholar and family man, to tell the story of his own lineage, and—with evident discomfort—to try and puzzle out the dissonance of Chimen’s decades-long embrace of communism.
Even as he and his family fled the Russian pogroms, and despite the eventual accounting of Stalin’s atrocities, Chimen remained unapologetically loyal to the Party until the late ’50s. Though he regretted this in later life, eventually replacing those affiliations with a liberal humanist circle who satisfied his need for voluble dinnertime debate, that willful blindness on Chimen’s part was a sticking point for Sasha. On reading his grandfather’s 1953 obituary of Stalin in The Jewish Clarion (on microfilm at the University of Sheffield, as Chimen had—in a rare moment of contrition—burned his own originals), he recalls:
What I don’t realize going in is just how phenomenally awful it really is, just how much he had bought into the cult of the personality. It leaves me gasping for breath, makes me want to run into a shower and scrub myself clean. This isn’t the sweet old man I loved so much; this isn’t the insightful humanist, so suspicious of even a whiff of totalitarianism and who so prided himself on his friendship with the great liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin.
A thoughtful cataloging of his grandfather’s personal history seems to have brought him some small closure. It’s important, too, that he achieved this understanding by way of Chimen’s bookshelves. At the beginning of House of Twenty Thousand Books, Sasha, writing in his early 40s, recalled:
From my early childhood days, Chimen taught me how to interpret the world around me, how to use ideas carefully to create patterns out of chaos.
And this, perhaps, is why my somewhat obsessive inventory of my mother’s bookshelves gave me comfort in her final years at home. Even if she was now largely the source of the chaos in my life, once upon a time she taught me well.
I siphoned books out of my mother’s library for years. Though mostly with her approval: she had boxed up a wonderful collection of art, design and photography books during one downsize or another, and she gave them to me once I moved into a house large enough to hold them. Periodically, I’d ask and borrow random items.
And in later years I just took stuff. Sometimes after an extra challenging day with her, spiriting a book home would be my reward. Sometimes my ritual gaze would turn covetous, and though there was no reason not to “borrow” whatever I wanted, the thought that I was taking from someone else’s shelves without permission felt vaguely transgressive. Still, the need to console myself was stronger than the taboo; my copy of Jo Ann Beard’s Boys Of My Youth will be forever linked in my mind with one early morning I had to race up to her apartment when, on one of her aide’s rare days off, mom had locked the replacement caregiver out and called the cops.
And yet—once I was alone in her apartment with a stack of boxes, tasked with this move, and her books were all mine to do with as I liked, I knew one thing right away: I didn’t want them.
In a different world—maybe a better one—I would have incorporated my mother’s library into my own. Not the crap, of course; not the ARCs, the mass-market potboilers, the bad sci-fi. (I did keep a galley of The Da Vinci Code for novelty’s sake, though I doubt it will ever be worth anything since mom, as she did with all her books, wrote her name in it.) But the lovely old clothbound sets, her collection of Modern Library philosophy, the mid-century novels that epitomized her generation of readers—Bellow, Nabokov, Updike—could have come home with me. I could have bought more bookshelves and absorbed her eclectic collection into mine in a traditional, intergenerational meeting of minds.
But I don’t have much sentiment for tradition, and, more practically, I’m not an aspirational reader. (My shelves and iPad give lie to that statement, of course—I own far more books than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime.) What coheres my own collection, though, is that every one of them is a book I might read. Though abstractly the possibility of reading Spinoza or Descartes or The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire lights a little fire in my heart, as I imagine the smarter, wiser, better-informed person I could become, I’m also a realist. I’m not going to read them.
So I packed her books up, going through each with an eye out for personal inscriptions, dollar bills, or the photos she liked to use as bookmarks. I filled about 20 boxes from UHaul, and dropped them off at her local library five boxes at a time, as per Friends of the Library instructions. It took my back nearly a month to recover.
I did keep a few items: a boxed set of books written by my father, none of which I owned; a lovely oversized book of Käthe Kollwitz drawings, given to mom on her birthday the year I was born and inscribed with extravagant love (“For my liebchen”) by my father; a two-volume set of 1967 Gourmet cookbooks, fat and impractical with cracked leather bindings, full of recipes I can’t imagine wanting to cook, but with a marvelously cringe-inducing ’60s inscription, again from my father: “To Rhoda, Feed me! Happy birthday, with all my love”; a trade paperback copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography. The rest I let go. I was surprised at how easy it was.
My mother’s Tarrytown co-op was no house of twenty thousand books, and her 600-odd-volume library had nothing on Chimen Abramsky’s.
But they shared the same bloodline. They don’t call us Jews the People of the Book for nothing, and although the label is originally about Judaism’s relationship to the Torah, how for millennia it has been treated as a live text that invites engagement and discourse, there’s also a cultural reverence for books and education that—while not unique to Jews—has been a given for generations of Jewish families. My parents were certainly the product of that loyalty, products of New York public schools who passed through the City College system and eventually met at Columbia. In our family, learning—which is to say reading—meant mobility and access.
My mother and Chimen Abramsky both loved those little Everyman’s and Modern Library books, with their egalitarian promises of knowledge for all: as Sasha Abramsky says, “They were books produced for every man, at a moment when it was quietly assumed that people in England of all classes and all walks of life were interested in bettering themselves intellectually.” Substitute Brooklyn or the Bronx for England, and you have my family’s intellectual history encapsulated. Like Abramsky’s, her library was aleatory and curated solely around her interests. While his enthusiasms lay along more scholarly lines, and although he collected around themes—Judaica, Socialism, Marx—there was still, in both their libraries, a deep faith that had nothing to do with organized religion and everything to do with the power of the printed word to elevate, expand, and explain.
And, as I am doing now, Sasha Abramsky revisited his grandfather’s library through memory only. Other than a few items that he and family members kept, the rest of his grandfather’s collection was boxed and sent off; not to the local Friends of the Library, of course, but to be appraised and sold. Utility took precedence over sentiment for Chimen’s library, as with my mother’s, and the books went on to a new life with new readers.
Someday my son will have to pack up all my books and decide what he wants to keep and what goes to the library sale, if there still is such a thing. I don’t need to make his future job harder just because I like the look of an erudite collection on my shelves, or because I want to try my hand at reading what my mother read to see if that makes me any more able to imagine what she thought. It won’t, because I can’t. It’s enough that she instilled that love of far-ranging, inquisitive reading in me. And maybe someone will pick up that battered set of The Great Philosophers for $5 at the Friends of the Warner Library book sale and it will be their gateway to great thought. Or maybe it will go unread and be packed up, someday, by their children, and the cycle will begin again.
Lisa Peet is associate news editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.