Books Everywhere

Three possessions should you prize: a field, a friend and a book.
— Hai Gaon (939-1038)

You might not have caught this relatively short article tucked next to "Metropolitan Diary" in this week's New York Times. A woman named Barbara Rosten returned an overdue book to the Brooklyn Public Library. Ordinarily this would not make the papers except for this unusual fact: it was 57 years overdue. In 2013 a book was returned to the New York Public Library 36 years late, but Rosten may have the record. The book, you wonder? Gone with the Wind, a classic whose theme song in the movie version was the first dance at Rosten's wedding. The irony is that she kept the book longer than she kept the husband. She owed 5 cents a day for 20,842 days, but since she had the book long before computer cataloging, they didn't charge her. Instead, they are putting the book on display to remind others who use the library to bring back books on time.
The next book article of interest for this week appeared in The Wall Street Journal. At the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair, Dutch novelist Mano Bouzamour, a self-described book doctor, listened to life complaints in his pop-up clinic, pulled out a prescription pad and wrote down the name of a book he felt would ease his "patient's" suffering (naturally, he also recommends his own novel). Depressed or listless, this bibliotherapist can heal you with just the right book.
And then there was the book I finished this week: John Kaag's American Philosophy. It's really a memoir of his divorce and new life, an intellectual version of Wild or Eat, Pray, Love. Depressed and questioning the meaning of his life, he is saved by the discovery of a magnificent library belonging to the philosopher William Ernest Hocking on his New Hampshire estate, West Wind. The library contains rare classics in philosophy and poetry growing moldy and insect-ridden due to neglect. Kaag sets a goal of cataloging this library and preserving the rare books and, in saving them, he manages to rescue himself.
It's a shame the Hocking family had not read Judah ibn Tibbon's letter about books to his only son, Samuel. Books were extremely expensive in the medieval period, some worth as much as an expensive car or house, a rare book librarian once shared with me. In the 12th century, Ibn Tibbon had invested in a library for his son and wrote an ethical will about the care of this library: "Cover your bookcases with rugs and linens of fine quality," he recommends. "Preserve them from dampness and mice and injury, for it is your books that are your true treasure." He also gave a piece of advice that would have benefited the Brooklyn Public Library, "Never refuse to lend books to anyone who cannot afford to purchase them, but lend books only to those who can be trusted to return them."
We've all been there, Mr. ibn Tibbon.
Ibn Tibbon had professional reasons to give his son this advice. The ibn Tibbon family had two family businesses: medicine and translation. Books were critical reference tools and needed to stay in the family for their beauty and their utility. It's amazing then that Judah ibn Tibbon recommended great generosity in lending out books. Perhaps, in this way, he was like our Dutch novelist, the book doctor. Generally, when you love something, you don't want to share it. But when it comes to books, true book lovers cannot wait to share because they know the gift that a good book is. It offers escape, companionship, adventure, knowledge, new ideas and new landscapes. It allows us mental and emotional travels without asking us to pack our bags and go anywhere.  
Another medieval Jewish scholar, R. Judah of Regensburg and author of Sefer Hasidim, the Book of Piety, advises that if you have two children - one who likes books and the second who does not - leave your library to the second, even if he is the younger of the two. The first child who likes to read will always find books. He will seek them out. The challenge is to make a reader out of the second child, and gifting that child with an entire library may just help in that endeavor. To understand just how much R. Judah loved books, he advised that they should be placed in "stately array near the dead, so that the souls of the righteous may in death study, as they did on earth." Once a reader, always a reader.
Every year at this season, there is book news everywhere: lists of the past year's most notable books, books that make great presents and books to read on a cold winter's night in front of the fire with hot chocolate. For us, inheritors of a tradition of scholarship, every season is the right season for books. And now that we are nearing the close of 2016, we might take a little advice from current and old book news. Return books you owe. Catalog and preserve the books you have. And augment someone's library to grow their love of books.
Happy Reading, Happy Hanukah and Shabbat Shalom.