(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It finally happened: automobile marketing has infiltrated the Hebrew book market. A major book publisher in Jerusalem has just offered a new twist on an old standby of car dealers: bring in a used book published by us and receive credit on a new one! Sounds like a great idea. That Chumash I have been using for so many years to review the weekly Torah portion could definitely use some rehab. Wouldn’t it be nice to trade it in for a newer model? In a newer model, the print would be less faded, the pages crisper, the cover design different.
Wouldn’t it be appropriate to have a Chumash with better binding and a sparkling new jacket? Well, No.
Thanks for the offer, but my bookshelves are creaking with old books, some far older than I am, and I am not willing to part with any of them. Nor would I want to part even with the relatively recent “old books” – those I have had for only a few years and are thank God showing signs of age. Like wine, when it comes to classic Hebrew sefarim, or books, older is better, well-worn is de rigueur.
Truth to tell, there are few things more dispiriting than bookcases filled with obviously unopened new books: a 20-volume edition of the entire Talmud, untouched, unhandled, intact; Rambam’s Yad Hachazakah, the classic compendium of all halacha; the classic Shulchan Aruch; newly issued commentaries on the entire Tanach; shelf upon shelf of classical Jewish texts – all in perfect condition.
Perhaps one should not belittle such fine Hebrew sefarim on a bookshelf. At the very least, the owner has good scholarly taste: even unopened books demonstrate the trajectory of the owner’s mind, what he hopes some day to study, the ideas that he values.
Even books that one never opens also speak, if I may say so, volumes.
Nevertheless, how can brand new books match the delicious sight of a shelf overflowing with venerable, albeit dog-eared, faded, musty old Hebrew sefarim, with spines slightly shopworn, covers scarred with time, pages bent from use, bindings no longer firm, pages blurred by finger marks – a sight to warm the heart of any Jewish bookworm. Old books have experienced life. They have seen joy and sadness, have heard both laughter and sobbing. Fresh new volumes, bedecked in their fine new covers and displaying their crisp new pages, are in essence callow, inexperienced, unread and literally unemployed.
Some day in the fullness of time, decades from now, these new sefarim, if they are fortunate, will grow worn with use, and then the wisdom distilled in their pages will come shining forth. But right now, brand new books, all wrapped up in themselves – in what they call mint condition – make me a bit uncomfortable. I am most at ease in the company of books that have been pored over and studied and analyzed, that have stayed open all hours of the night, and whose pages, worn with use, contain jottings and addenda and glosses in the margins.
Old books, like old friends, offer comfort when one is distressed, inspiration when one is defeated, friendship and solace when one is wounded and alone. Mostly, they offer memories: I studied this blatt Gemara with my late father, explained this section to many students, learned this from a brilliant teacher, still remain stumped by certain inscrutable passages. When old books surround me I feel protected and secure.
One does not turn to a fresh-faced child, no matter how lovely, for such blessings.
As for that trade-in offer, here is a counter- proposal for that book dealer: I have some brand new books on my shelves, in mint condition, waiting patiently to be aged. Perhaps I can trade them in for some older models you might have lying around?