How many shelves do you have? This is not a question heard at most dinner parties. But at a table of graduate students, it was not out of place in the least. While many people may compare their fantasy sports teams, closet contents, or cars, grad students, especially in the humanities, see their books as a point of pride. How they are organized, the number, the variety. And many people don’t spend their evenings, especially their precious free evenings, looking at old books, but this group had gathered for just that reason.
After dinner, ten students made their way to Hebrew Union College’s Rare Book Room, just a short walk down the street from the campus ministry house where I work. A student had planned the evening and it turned out to be one of the more popular activities of the quarter. One of the first thing to catch everyone’s eyes when we walked into the Klau Library was the card catalog – yes, a real, live card catalog. It wasn’t recommissioned for another purpose, but actually used to order and find books in the stacks. Most of us don’t have this tactile experience of locating books anymore.
Downstairs we entered the outer courtyard and showroom of the rare book sanctuary. We waited outside until the director unlocked the main door. Immediately everyone went to the glass cases along the walls. Sixteenth century torah, calendars, a rabbinic Bible, miniature books. Just a taste of the entire collection. A history of scholarship. Only a glass pane separated us from touching the books, the pages that others have turned so many years before.
After a few moments, the director rolled in a cart laden with manuscripts unprotected by glass. An early Josephus printing, a book of martyrs in German, a 13th century partial pentateuch, a desk book bound with the pentateuch, comments, prayers, and other writings. People stepped up to the table first to see and then carefully turn pages – some yellowed and singed, others covered with oils of the hands of people from centuries before. The original readers were the ancestors of the community of scholars sitting in the room today. During the next hour we talked about the progress of book publishing, the development of commentaries, the difference between holding a manuscript held by others and looking at a copy – just the words, not the very presence of the work.
Who knows where the books on our shelves will end up years from now? Some in the trash, some in auctions or attics, but hopefully, some in the hands of future scholars wondering about this continuing conversation.