People of the Book (Bava Metzia 29b)

The physical objects that populate rabbinic literature include oxen, cows, spindles, coins, pigeons, dates, figs, flax, wool, jugs, lentils, fish, and even official documents and bills – but rarely ever books. And so I was surprised by this Mishnah, encountered on a recent daf:

If one found books, he should read from them once in thirty days. If he does not know how to read, he should roll them from beginning to end. However, he should not study in them for the first time, nor should another person read together with him.

At first I was puzzled. Why should a book be read once in thirty days? And what does it mean to roll a book? Rashi explains that all books in Talmudic times were written on parchment scrolls (no e-books or mass market paperbacks back then!), and these scrolls would get moldy if they weren’t aired out regularly. Thus the person who came upon a lost scroll and held on to it until its rightful owner was found would be responsible for its proper care. The finder should either read the scroll once a month, or else roll it out. However, he should not study from it, because this would result in undue wear and tear of a particular section. Nor should he read from it with someone else, lest them two of them yank at different parts of the scroll and cause damage.

I am fascinated by this Mishnah because it is born out of the deeply literary culture of the rabbis, and yet it relates to texts exclusively as physical objects. A scroll needs to be aired out once a month, just like a pet dog needs to be walked every morning. This sugya is concerned with preserving the quality of the scroll, and not with any sense of reverence for what is written on it. Perhaps the text written in that particular scroll is best learned by two people in chevruta. But no matter! For the sake of protecting the scroll, it should not be subjected to over-use.

The Gemara goes on to consider the responsibilities of the person who borrows a very particular kind of scroll, one on which the words of the Torah are written:

If one borrows a Torah scroll from his fellow, he may not lend it to another person. He may open and read from it, provided he does not study in it something for the first time. Nor should another person read together with him.

With all due respect to this sugya, my own attitude towards my books could not be more different. A friend recently visited my apartment, looked at my full set of Steinsaltz gemarot, and remarked, “Oh, I see you bought some of them used.” I laughed. “No,” I corrected her. “It is I who used them!” I carry around the masechet I am currently learning in my backpack all day every day, and thus by the time I am finished with that volume, it is usually quite beaten up – my Yevamot is missing half its spine, my Bava Kama has a damaged front cover, and my Sukkah is water-logged. Still, I could not imagine it otherwise. I buy my books for the sake of using them – the physical object is secondary to its literary content. The more the Masechet looks like it is ready for the Genizah, the more emphatically I recite the Hadran.

That said, however, I am a generous book-lender, and I ask that my friends take care of my books and return them within a reasonable period of time. Certainly I would not want them to lend my books to a third party without my permission! The Talmud agrees with me on this one:

Why do we have the rule that one may not lend what he has borrowed in the case of a Torah scroll specifically? This is true of all other borrowed scrolls! It was necessary to teach this ruling specifically with respect to a Torah scroll for you might have said that a person is agreeable to having a mitzvah performed with his possessions [and the owner would therefore not object to having his Torah scroll lent out for study by a third party]. The Talmud therefore teaches us that this is not the case.

Even in the case of a Torah scroll, which is used for the mitzvah of Torah study, we must assume that a person would not want his copy lent out widely without his explicit permission.

This sugya about borrowed texts reminds me of my own attempt, back when I was in the fourth grade, to convert my bedroom into a lending library. I organized my books alphabetically by author, inserted an index card (with the words DATE DUE painstakingly printed in my best block letters) into the back of every book, and created a card catalogue (i.e. a single box of index cards) listing all the titles in my possession, with an asterisk next to Cheaper by the Dozen, Little Women, The Phantom Tollbooth, and the other books I particularly recommended. I encouraged my family members to visit their “local local” public library and check out books, provided, of course, that they returned them on time. Proceeds from late fines went into our family tzedakah box, and anyone who returned a damaged book would have their borrowing privileges summarily revoked.

Years later, I found myself a real library job. Two days a week after high school I worked as a “page” (as we were aptly termed) in the Main Street Public Library, where I was responsible for returning books to their rightful places on the shelves. If all the shelving was completed before the end of my shift, I would be assigned the tedious task of “shelf-reading,” i.e. running my eye along an assigned set of shelves to make sure that all the books were arranged alphabetically and positioned neatly with spines facing outward, flush against the edge of the shelf. My supervisor was a proper library lady whose grey hair was secured tightly atop her head with so many bobby pins that I got a headache just from looking at her. She wore slipper-like satin shoes and used to sneak softly down the carpeted aisles to make sure she never caught any of us reading on the job. “When you are a patron, you may read; when you are a page, you are paid to shelve,” she would insist, shaping her lips around every word and peering sternly over horn-rimmed glasses. I struggled to obey.

About a year later I graduated from page to periodicals clerk, which meant I sat at a great wooden desk supervising the use of the microfilm and microfiche machines (reminiscent of the Talmud’s rolling scrolls), and reading stacks of old book review sections when business was slow. To my consternation, I was never deemed personable enough to be awarded the prized role of circulation desk clerk; this did not happen until college, when I found myself checking out books for my professors and fellow students (apparently by then, my social skills had improved sufficiently). Most of my time in college was spent “working at Widener”; when I wasn’t sitting at the circulation desk, I was doing my own reading down in the stacks (level B-2, underground) in a history of science grad student’s neglected carrel. (Lamont is for little guys, my friends and I would quip, deriding the lack of seriousness of those who patronized the undergraduate library at the other end of the quad. The underground Widener stacks remain one of my favorite places on earth, and I’m determined to get back there before I die.)

I suppose it was during those years spent working at libraries that I developed my appreciation for books as physical objects, an appreciation that I share with the rabbis of the Talmud. If you are being paid not to read, you inevitably come to value books for something other than their content. This attention to the material culture of the book was honed during my years as an editorial assistant at Knopf, where we had weekly meetings to decide upon each title’s trim size (the length and width of the book), running heads (what would be written at the top of each page), format (hardcover or paperback), colophon (which of several graphic borzoi dogs would decorate the spine), and every other imaginable aspect of the book’s physical appearance. Rough trim or smooth trim? French flaps? Wraparound jacket? The goal was to make our books look better than anyone else’s, in the hope that they would fly off the Barnes and Noble shelves into the hands of as many customers as possible.

In my current job as a literary agent, I am also responsible for the circulation of books, albeit in a different context altogether. I spend my time reading book catalogues sent to our Jerusalem-based agency from publishers all over the world, ordering books for which I think we can sell Hebrew translation rights, and pitching these titles to Israeli editors. Often we have more requests for a book than physical copies, which means that publishers have to wait in line as the book is read and returned by a series of other editors, or else make do with a PDF. We keep track of which editors have which books in our sophisticated custom-made database, and relentlessly chase down overdue sample copies.

There are a few editors who are particularly delinquent when it comes to returning books, and I often imagine storming their offices to raid our missing copies. If so, I’d find myself no longer in Bava Metzia, but in Bava Kama (114b), where I encountered one of the only other book-related sugyot I can recall:

If a man identifies his articles or books in the possession of another person, and a rumor of theft in his place had already been spread in town, the purchaser would have to swear how much he paid for them, and would be paid accordingly [for returning the books].

This Mishnah refers to the case of a person who comes to his friend’s house and finds his own books (which had been recently stolen from him) sitting there innocently on his friend’s shelves. Assuming the theft was a known fact in the community, the owner is permitted to re-appropriate his books in exchange for the sum that the purchaser (who first must swear that he is not himself the thief!) had paid for them. While I am not accusing anyone at Yediot Achronot for stealing our books, I do have half a mind to pay them a visit one of these days….

As active, industrious literary agents, we like to keep our books in constant circulation. That said, inevitably there comes a point where we have to accept the sad reality that a particular title is just not going to sell. “She has gone out with every editor in Israel,” I often joke to my colleague, waving a copy of Secrets of the Zodiac or (l’havdil!) the latest Marilynne Robinson (alas, alas). “What can we do? Nobody wants her.” With heaviness of heart, we place the undesirable volume on the discard pile in the hallway, hoping that some kind stranger will pick her up, take her home, and leaf through her pages every month or so – even if he never reads a single word.

2 thoughts on “People of the Book (Bava Metzia 29b)

  1. wolfman says:

    Delightful as always! You could also relate the sugyot in masekhet Shabbat about saving books on Shabbat; it’d be interesting to see how your attitude towards books is reflected there, or not.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.