Thursday, May 03, 2012

So many books...

An elderly friend died recently. He lived alone in an assisted living facility, surrounded by memorabilia and books, hundreds of books.

His friends were left to dispose of his possessions and, of course, the books. More than 400 of them.

I thought of my own books as I sorted through his. Many, many, were unread, like my own. They and their selection spoke of his wide-ranging interests. Germany after the great 20th Century wars, wars’ victims, the agonizing state of Palestine and Palestinians, the great ancient lost cities. He had four Bibles.  He had subscribed to the Folio Book Club. Many of those tomes had arrived in the mail and never been opened. Cellophane still enclosed them.

Boxed books, massive art books, several mysteries, biographies. Most unread.

He was a gentle, unassumingly erudite man. He would, when asked, recall his past and his struggles for human rights and dignity for all. He was gay. In his eighties when I met him, he never mentioned being gay. There seemed no reason to. He was at peace with his life and his world.

His library bespoke him: his fascinations, his passions, his curiosities. His library spoke, yes, volumes, of the privilege it was to know him and the honor to be bequeathed responsibility for these books.

He was a member of our Quaker congregation, and it was clear from his bequest that he wanted us to have and to see that his library was put in good hands. And so we sold them cheaply to Quaker Friends and neighbors. I bought five or six. Among them were a boxed Folio edition of Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” Calvin Trillin’s warm, evocative “Messages from My Father,” and Jimmy Carter’s impassioned “Palestine. Peace not Apartheid.” I also bought the massive “An Incomplete Education, 3684 things you should have learned but probably didn’t.”

I don’t know whether my friend read any of them. They were clearly well cared for. How many of those 3684 “things” did he absorb? What of the “Rights of Man”? The spines were uncreased except for the Bibles, which may have been handed down for generations, as Bibles often are. The pristine books might have been read. He no doubt cared for his books as he did for all who knew him. As I have said, above all, he was a gentle, deeply caring soul.

Now that I’ve turned seventy, I’ve looked at what I will leave when I die, and what I will have left undone and, yes, unread. I have at least as many books on my shelves. Who will take them, what do they say of me, will they ever be read — by me or anyone else?

Does it matter?

Yes, no and maybe. Especially maybe... You, friends, will decide.

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Anonymous Leslie Pohl said...

This is a beautifully written and thoughtful commentary. I think that I know who you are describing, and he seemed a quiet man who served the religious community without "coming out."

My younger son asked me recently, "What happens when we die, what happens to all that we learned?"

I'd like to think that what we shared with others made a difference.
Leslie Pohl-Kosbau

8:15 AM  

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