Books as the Antidote

Is it too last-century to be thinking about books in this current fraught era? Preoccupied as we’ve all become, justifiably, with the vulgarity, the bias-baiting and the attendant chronic anxiety of the 5-minute news cycle, reading a book feels like an indulgence, a willful shutting out of the world. And since the putative leader of the free world is not reading at all, it seems, reading may even qualify as defiance.

Books are barometers of how awake we are, testimony to our being alert as Jews, as feminists, as citizens.

There are secrets in our books. And likely secrets in ourselves revealed by what we choose to read. Especially by what we choose to re-read, or at least to re-examine. Revisiting a book, especially a book you first encountered years ago, presents the rare chance to notice how we ourselves have changed, and to judge if the climate around us has as well.

Some books lend themselves immediately to this kind of benchmarking; they’re surrogates for particular moments in the zeitgeist, like Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement, from 1947, a novel about ugly social and economic anti-Semitism in the U.S.—even after the War. (Jews are denied entrance to hotels, among other overt, sanctioned redlining.) Shaking our heads as we look at this books now, we nod at civil rights legislation which, 70 years later, appears to protect against discrimination.

There are plenty of more (and less) subtle comparisons provided by the books on my shelves. Why am I mulling this over now? Because very recently—on a rather larger scale than I’d anticipated—I de-accessioned many hundreds of volumes from my family’s overcrowded bookcases. A household move was the proximal motivation for why I undertook this long overdue book triage. So I handled every volume, dusted it off, and decided which ones would stay and which would be carted off to a non-profit bookstore.

I hadn’t anticipated the uninvited education the exercise provided. Nor the trauma.

This is the point in the essay when one quotes Martin Buber, right? “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

I knew that lurking among the volumes of feminist theory, children’s faves, adored novels and ex-college-annotated treasures would be some familiar volumes of my mother’s. But her high school poetry text? I mean, she attended high school in the 1920s! But no advance knowledge prepared me for finding, wrapped in tissue, my mother’s mother’s leatherbound copy of the Tsena-Rena, in Yiddish, pub. date 1902. Or my paternal grandfather’s Daniel Deronda—in Hebrew!

The tables of contents of nonfiction books were especially revealing. Some provided a gorgeous timeline of Jewish feminist thinking. Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai; On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition by Blu Greenberg; Re-Reading the Rabbis by Judith Hauptman; Engendering Judaism by Rachel Adler; The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology from Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz; and more and more and more from this rich motherlode, where Jewish texts are mined with new tools.

And then came the disappointments. Like the doorstopsized anthology The Modern Tradition: Backgrounds of Modern Literature, a reminder that a compilation edited by deeply esteemed (male) scholars, published in my lifetime, wrote women out of its canon of 19th-through mid-20th century writers. It has no women among its zillions of entries, with the sole exception of the always exceptional Virginia Woolf, who gets a single brief excerpt. I became angry with books I’d once admired, and with myself. How could I not have noticed that women were missing?

Look, I realize how privileged and lucky it is to have had the safety and the space for such feelings, both nostalgic and analytical, and to have had cherished books around me all my life. People in Syria—or Houston—have not been so fortunate, thanks to cruel political calculations and the depredations of climate change. The books I packed, or packed off, signal progress, yes, but also prejudice and blinkered neglect we used to think were relics sequestered in the dark recesses of past times. The current political climate in the United States, however, is a reminder that shutting out certain people from full participation in society and in life has not been eradicated like some long-ago contagion. Dangerous, baseless hatreds are emerging from their shadowy hideouts. The misogyny and racism and anti-Semitism of these older books are not so remote as we’d have thought. A hardware store in rural Pennsylvania is doing a brisk business selling tiki torches. And a few blocks away from me in the streets of New York—once dubbed by Harry Golden “the greatest Jewish city in the world”—a small cluster of men with Make America Great Again hats are carrying around anti-Semitic placards with photos of Jewish investor and philanthropist George Soros.

As an antidote to such scariness, and to the accelerated and exhausting news cycle, I recommend you open this issue of Lilith to the Reviews section for bracing visions of better outcomes. And don’t worry about overloading your bookshelves (or your tablet) when you buy and read them.