I must have loved another, but nothing and no one returned love like a book, as my heart renders it.
Mere sentences and brief phrases and sometimes not a word telling the melancholy story of nervous pictures on thick stock paper pages I chewed in my mind and swallowed in my heart.
In the light of my nights, the fearful mastery of monsters seemed ever more possible because Max misbehaved and just walked out of the walls of his room.
I still have that very copy of Where the Wild Things Are in the sci-fi and fantasy section of my bookshelves. On the inside title page, there is a dedication: “August 15, 1975. . . For David on your 5th birthday!!! With love, Lois & Harold & Jennifer.”
(This may have been the start of my fascination with finding books in used bookstores and thrift stores with photographs, ticket stubs, personal dedications, notes, and letters written in or stuffed between pages.)
I don’t remember Lois & Harold & Jennifer, but I am forever grateful.
Literature was the earliest way I understood Gd’s relationship to man.
The empathy learned in the stories I read defined the oneness of existence. People have always written and have always shared what they’ve written. Literature – its very creation and consumption – is quintessentially human. And it connects us as humans. If mere words written by another human being can literally create a new reality in my mind, my logic dictated, then of course the life we live comes from a super awesome supernal Imagination.
I know more now, so I know that I know so much less. But I hang on to that. I like that my first love was found in books and I continued to find requited love in them which – because of the power of language and imagination – made it easy for me to believe in Hashem.
By the time I started teaching English in Jewish schools just a couple of years after my wife and I started taking on mitzvot, I came up with a theory:
Torah – and all of its manifestations and offshoots and understandings esoteric, ethereal, or practical – tells us how to live.
But literature – stories true and made-up and poems – shows us how we actually live.
Whether the protagonists are real or made up, hobbits or rabbits or the bravest knight of all the noble’s daughters, whether the setting fantastical or dystopian or historical or prescient, whether the conflict internal or external or both – we go with the words and hope to know something new or deeper or simple and plain about ourselves, humanity, and the world around us.
Hope turns pages, even when they are soaked with tears.
By the end, we are ready for a new beginning.
According to some people, the Karpels smell like books. This is mostly because of all the books we have acquired over the years. On date nights, you are very likely to find my wife and I roaming different aisles of a Barnes and Noble bookshop and then meeting at a table to discuss our finds.
But there’s nothing like spending a couple of hours in a used book store or thrift store hunting for unknown treasures, ever mindful of my wife and kids, who I pray will have just a bit more patience, just a book case or two more, who’ve already picked their reads and are ready to go, as is the store owner, who has already locked the door and started turning off the lights…
I once found a book, Temperaments: Artists Facing Their Work, by Dan Hofstadter, that piqued my interest. When I opened the front cover, a folded square of yellowed papers fell to the worn thin green carpet. I was in the non-fiction section of the first floor of Robert A. Hittel Bookseller, a wonderfully musty, 3-story antiquarian and used book store in Ft. Lauderdale that closed its doors for good a few years ago.
I looked left and right to see if anyone was around, if this secret treasure would be mine, if I’d have to share it. I did not, I was alone, and I have not shared it until right now. Two handwritten pages, cursive, dated 5-31-65. Addressed to Tom from his sister Loll. She wants him to return to Gd. She cites passages in Hebrews, Peter, and Thessalonians as admonishment for his life choices. She loves him no matter what, but she wants him to change his ways so she can love him more. The tone is evident in the syntax: every few sentences she begins with his name or ends with his name. There is even a post-script asking, “Are you reading my poem, Tom?” I bought the book. I’ve kept that letter in the inside cover ever since.
Sometimes stories fall onto the carpet and you pick them up and they become part of who you are, how you see the world, how you experience other stories. This letter pains me. I think of those who’ve chosen to leave frumkeit and how their families all-too-often react and act. And I think of Tom and I think of Faigy Mayer and those like her, who feel like she did, and I think how Loll could have stopped with “I love you no matter what” and continued with and I’ll always be here for you whenever you need me.
Sometimes it’s not just the book but what the book carries between its covers and what the book gives beyond its pages.
Sometimes it’s not just the book but the transcendent gift of boundless possibilities.
Books I’m reading lately:
The Seven Good Years: A Memoir by Etgar Keret: Short pieces that will make you laugh, think, cry, and want to hug your kids or parents or spouse or friends or all of them at the same time. Keret is one of my modern favorites. Everything he writes pierces my heart.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson: A fictional glimpse into life in North Korea. The writing is gorgeous, the story intense, suspenseful, and explores themes as seemingly disparate as cruelty and love. Do not delay reading this one any longer.
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams: Sci-fi and fantasy writers come together in a collection of stories about after. One of my favorite motifs. With writers like George R. R. Martin, Stephen King, and Jonathan Lethem you can’t go wrong. And you will discover others, like Paolo Bacigalupi, whose stories will inspire you to look for more of their work.
Robopacolypse by Daniel H. Wilson: I just started this one. A robot uprising that kills billions. Feels like a modern I, Robot. So far, it’s delicious brain candy.
And finally. . .
There’s a book in my shelves that I treasure but won’t read. At least I haven’t read it, yet. I started it when it first came out. Got about 60 pages into it but couldn’t read the remaining 400 pages.
Not because it isn’t good. Oh, man, is it a good read. And maybe that’s why I stopped.
A Miracle of Catfish: A Novel in Progress, by Larry Brown, was published in 2007. I have a first edition hard-cover copy that will never be signed by the author, one of my favorites of all time, because he died too young at 53 in 2004.
When I was in graduate school in the mid-90s, Larry Brown was scheduled to read in Miami and to give a brief seminar to me and my fellow graduate students. I was charged with picking him up at the airport, bringing him to his hotel, and then getting him to campus. I had read exactly two stories of his before meeting him. After meeting him, I read everything he wrote before we met and everything he wrote until he died.
Except A Miracle of Catfish. Because nothing will come afterward. And reading it as “a novel in progress” hurts. He never got to finish it. There are brackets with ellipses where the gracious editor cut some copy. If I ever get to Oxford, Mississippi, I can read those cut passages that are kept with his other manuscripts and such in a library that makes these things available for public viewing and handling. His notes about how he would have liked to have ended the book are included. Someone wrote that the book reads like an unfinished symphony.
Hanging out with Larry Brown was one of the most pleasurable experiences of my life. We had time after I got him to his hotel before we had to be back to campus. So he asked, “Where can we get some drinks and shrimp?” So I took him to Shooters, where we drank Margaritas and ate shrimp and smoked cigarettes and talked about writing, fishing, and farming. Somehow we made it to campus on time. After class, we all went to a local bar, where we talked about writing, fishing, and farming while drinking shots and beers and smoking cigarettes. My classmates and I were in our 20s and 30s. Larry was in his 40s. We partied hard. Somehow we all made it out alive for a few more years.
He came back to Miami a year later for the famous Miami Book Fair International. This time I had all of his books, some hardcover, some paperback. A classmate and I had taken to calling him Big Bad Larry Brown after the title of one of his short story collections, Big Bad Love. That day he signed all of my books “Big Bad Larry Brown.” He also mentioned a limited edition book he’d written that was getting some press, Billy Ray’s Farm. A couple of weeks later, I wrote him asking how I could get my hands on that book. Sometime later, he wrote me back.
The letter is type written. It is yellowing. Dated April 25, 1997. I keep it in the inside cover of his book Fay, which he mentions in the letter, but he calls it Wild Child, which was the working title at the time. It’s a friendly, conversational letter about where my friends and I – all of us fans – can best feast our eyes on Billy Ray’s Farm.
He tells me where I can order a literary magazine that published the book in its entirety and that he had a good time in Miami. The day after we hung out, he wound up having Bloody Mary’s and beers with writer Madison Smart Bell before heading to the airport. He writes, “We told farm-and-shooting-people stories.” And then he finishes the letter: “Well, I need to get to work, but I hope this throws a little joy into your lives. Be well, take care, see you on down the road. All best, Larry.” His name signed in his warbled handwriting.
Wherever this book ends up in however many years down the road, someone else will find that letter and wonder.
So, dear reader, what are you reading? Go ahead and use the comment section below or on the Hevria Facebook page and let us know. Let’s talk about books!