Eliezer Finkelman

Mourning for a Book

Forty years ago we bought a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, most of one. Our son’s elementary school decided to cull it at their annual book fair because the set was missing two volumes, and, anyway, was more than a decade old. We paid all of seven dollars. Since then, the Britannica has held an honored place on a shelf in our home, accompanied us when we moved, and provided us with hours of reading, whether browsing or looking stuff up.

Nowadays we do not often consult it during the week; it gets used on Shabbat, when we do not use the Internet.

And the time has come to cull our own library. Some of our books might have value for a used bookstore; some of them can get donated to a resale shop or to the Bookstock book fair raising money for literacy projects. No one wants volumes of an old encyclopedia, not even as a donation.  Municipal recycling will take a volume or two each week.

So last week, on the designated day for setting out recyclables, I put two volumes of the venerable encyclopedia in the container at the curb. If all goes well, the city will turn them into paper pulp, suitable for various uses, including as insulation. The paper will be destroyed, but the letters will fly away.

Putting these old volumes into the receptacle makes me feel sad.

I remember when my parents got their set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, when I was a schoolboy. They justified the expense because the purchase promised to delight and instruct. And so it did. I now have trouble remembering my father without the Encyclopaedia Britannica – he loved to look up whatever came up in conversation or reading.

Besides that, I grew up with a kind of veneration of books. Certain acts were not appropriate: writing in the margins, folding the pages to mark a place, leaving a book where it could get a smudge of dirt. Those acts would show lack of respect for precious objects of intellectual education.

Overcoming that veneration has taken decades, and remains incomplete. I learned to write notes on the inside covers and even in the margins, and became somewhat comfortable pulping cheap novels or meretricious political works. But this act – putting a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the recycling receptacle, still felt like a misdemeanor. I have not yet read all the articles. I do not remember everything I have read. Where will I find an authoritative introduction to whatever topic crosses my mind? Sort of authoritative — authoritative to a mainstream scholar of the middle of last century.

I suppose I will find my introduction to whatever topic on the Internet, six days a week. The superannuated Encyclopaedia Britannica has already died; I slowly come to terms with burying the corpse and enduring the mourning process.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman currently resides in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Until recently, he taught Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, and served as half the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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