The move to a new apartment is traditionally sanctified and celebrated with the hanging of a mezuzah. For me it was otherwise: Though I moved into a new apartment over two months ago, it was only last week, when I finally bought and erected bookcases, that I felt I had truly established residency in my new home.
For the past two months, my books have sat in boxes on the floor of my bedroom. Well, that’s not exactly true: Each time I needed to find a particular volume to quote from or reference, I would empty several boxes quickly and haphazardly without bothering to put anything back properly — so most of my books were strewn across piles of boxes and overflowing onto my floor. It was not a pleasant sight, and I was frustrated by the disarray.
I knew exactly what had to be done — in fact, I had chosen this apartment largely because of the little alcove beyond the kitchen which seemed to cry out to me, “Books belong here!” The alcove was just the right size for two wooden bookcases, and in a spurt of uncharacteristic materialism, I spent a series of Saturday nights wandering from store to store in the industrial area of Talpiot comparing models. I finally found what I was looking for at Ace Kneh U’vneh, a store whose rhyming name (especially when compared to its alliterative English equivalent “buy and build”) I loved almost as much as its furniture. So I bought and built (along with two friends and their trusty toolkits), and I began the profoundly pleasurable activity of arranging my books on my shelves.
As I pondered what should go where, the possibilities seemed nearly endless. I had twelve shelves in total, each 80cm long, which fit about 35 books per shelf, assuming an average spine width of just over 2cm. My Steinsaltz gemarot would go on one shelf, along with any related reference books. All the books I have bought from Yediot Achronot’s series Yahadut Kan V’Achshav would go on another, along with Avivah Zornberg, Shulamit Elizur, Ruth Calderon, and Yona Frankel. Poetry (Hebrew, English, and bizarre hybrids of the two like ee cummings in a language that knows no capitals and no vowels!) would have to go at eye level, so they would flash immediately on the outward eye. Nonfiction books relating to history of science (most of them ordered through my literary agency account from MIT Press under the pretense of trying to sell them to Israeli publishers) would stay together, perhaps mixed with the few other non-Jewishly related books of nonfiction I own: Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza, and Victorian Literary Mesmerism (in which my senior thesis was published). On the bottom shelf, where no one was likely to bend down and look, I would put all the books I am embarrassed that I own – Vegan with a Vengeance, The No-Gym Workout, How to Behave in Dating and Sex, and the ones I can’t even mention.
I remember in the glory of late-night arranging and rearranging one moment of panic, when I realized that I had grouped siddurim, machzorim, and bentchers with Keter’s “Ktzarim” short story series simply because they were all the same height. I suddenly remembered my favorite part of Amos Oz’ A Tale of Love and Darkness when the author relates how, at age six, his father cleared a space for him on his bookcases and let him put his own books there: “It was an initiation right, a coming of age: anyone whose books were standing upright is no longer a child, he is a man.” Oz describes how, in an effort to conserve space, he arranged his books by height. That night, he was made aware of his error: “Father came home from work, cast a shocked glance toward my bookshelf, and then, in total silence, gave me a long hard look that I shall never forget: It was a look of contempt, of bitter disappointment beyond anything that could be expressed in words, almost a look of utter genetic despair. Finally he hissed at me with pursed lips: ‘Have you gone completely crazy? Arranging your books by height? Have you mistaken your books for soldiers?'” I felt like Arieh Klausner was glaring at me from his position on the top shelf — had I gone completely crazy?
Still, I knew there was rhyme and reason to the organization of my poetry and nonfiction (respectively), and no shortage of imagination when it came to the fiction. I have one shelf for my thirty-six novels by Israeli writers: Michal Govrin, Yael Hedaya, Savyon Liebrecht, David Grossman, etc. I have an entire shelf filled with all the novels I own by four authors of whom I can say I’ll read anything they write: Alexander McCall Smith, Jacqueline Winspear, Dara Horn, and Nicholson Baker. I have another shelf for novels I have not yet read. This shelf is intentionally low down, far beyond eye level — when I chose it, I was reminded of a piece on the Back Page of the New York Times Book Review several years ago, in which another avid reader commented that she wishes should could put the books she has not read with spines facing inwards, because she doesn’t feel that she deserves to display them yet. Another shelf features novels I read and didn’t like so much, and would be happy to give away. And then there are two empty shelves for the books that are still in my office at work, which I have to bring home now that I have the space.
These two empty shelves remind me that there is another bookcase, too, that is waiting to be bought and built. This is the bookcase that someday, Godwilling, I will fill with the twelve gigantic boxes of books that are sitting in my parents’ basement on Long Island. These include classics from childhood and high school: the complete works of Austen and the Brontes, all the Norton poetry and literature anthologies, the novels of dear Madeleine L’Engle. There, too, are the scores of books I took with me when I left Random House b’richush gadol after three years as an editorial assistant — each with the Knopf rough trim and the handsome Borzoi on the spine. I miss them all like dear long-distance friends: How often I have ached to reach out for one of them — to quote a favorite passage to a friend in distress, or reread those delicious final paragraphs that send shivers up my spine each time afresh. The reality of my longing in all its poignancy, like the corners left unpainted in religious homes, carries with it an important reminder: Although I am the proud owner of two beautiful new bookcases, all the exiles have not yet been ingathered, and our world is still not redeemed.