Books I wept over, books that changed me, books that explained a tiny chunk of the world so clearly I never forgot—they stand proud on my shelves, in need of dusting but still beloved. Interspersed among them, though, are all the others. Books that were on a grad school reading list—but I never cracked them. Books friends gave me because I just had to read them (I skimmed). Books that just somehow seemed important. Or timeless because they were old and still existed, their pages softened by strangers’ fingers, their titles stamped in faded gold on their leather covers.
When I was young, and idealistic, and sharply judgmental, I fell in instant love with a guy because he had such great books on his apartment bookshelves. Then he told me he had not read—well, any of them. He just figured you had to have books in a bookcase, so he bought these (probably for a quarter apiece at Goodwill, from the look on his face). I banished him from my heart—and then proceeded to acquire my own shelves of the unread. The only difference was that I paid more—and hoped harder.
Now, I cannot decide which of us to forgive.
Overdue library books niggle our conscience, but our own unread books trouble the soul. I scan the rows and sigh, already sure my good intentions will count for nothing, and in the whirl of everyday busyness, those books will not feel fresh air against their covers for quite some time. How did I let myself accumulate so many tomes that would reproach me? Silent, they are eloquent. I ignore them and reach for Richard Osman’s latest amusing murder mystery, or that great book club pick about a wise octopus. Oscar Wilde’s biography will have to keep, and so will Walt Whitman’s, and Absalom, Absalom!, and Middlemarch.
They will keep, though. That is the joy of unread books. Their operating system might blur a little, but it does not require updates. The Japanese have a word, tsundoku, for the tendency to buy books and let them pile up unread. Tsundoku has caught the attention of the literate internet lately, because it is not a harsh or punitive; its sense is more like “bookworm,” a fond acknowledgement that for some of us, inked and bound paper is both an obsession and a comfort.
The essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that as we grow older and more curious, we accumulate an “antilibrary” of unread books that are far more valuable than the books we have already read. Having an antilibrary keeps us humble and curious, he says. It “challenges our self-estimation by providing a constant, niggling reminder of all we don’t know.”
Now that I feel better about The Great Unread, I find myself sliding one out when I have a free minute. I page through, and it feels like a hand reaches out, clutches my shirt, pulls me in closer. I remember why I bought the book in the first place, why I knew we would connect. Were it alive, I would whisper, “You were always wanted.” Because the story of the Yiddish Book Center haunts me.
Back in 1980, Aaron Lansky, a lanky young man of twenty-three, was studying Yiddish literature at McGill University, and the books were out of print. So with every assignment, the grad students raced each other to get the one copy at the Jewish library. Lansky started putting up little notes around Montreal asking for Yiddish books—and he was deluged. Those books told the stories woven over one thousand years of Jewish life in Europe, yet nobody wanted them anymore. Grandparents told him, often with tears in their eyes, that their kids did not want their groaning shelves of books, and their grandkids, who only knew a few colorful insults in Yiddish, definitely did not want them.
Lansky enlisted zamlers, volunteer book collectors, around the world. Their goal? To save the remaining Yiddish books, the ones that had not yet been set out by the trash, before it was too late. A Bridge of Books, a documentary about the rescue operation, so moved me that when we visited friends in Massachusetts, we made a special trip to Amherst to see the Center Lansky established there. After recovering more than one million books, he and his staff created the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library online, free of charge. In 2014, the Yiddish Book Center was awarded a National Medal for Museums and Libraries at a White House ceremony.
Those books are being read now.
And so will mine be, someday. Before, I walked past them hoping for osmosis. Now, I see them as a promise. Because of those shelves, retirement does not scare me. Power blackouts do not scare me. Not even lockdowns scare me. Only fire scares me. And blindness.
Marie Kondo, take note: you can love a book without having read it.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.