I am sitting on the soft carpeted floor of my study dividing up my books, as I prepare to move out of High Meadow, the house I’ve lived in for twenty years. I turn the pages of my childhood favorite, The Lonely Doll, by Dare Weber, copyright “1957.” I was three years old when my mother, Edith, gave the book to me. It’s about a lonely doll named Edith who finds Mr. Bear and Little Bear, two stuffed animals to be her best friends. I will never throw or give away this book. Turning the pages—with their black and white photographs—fill me with the loneliness of my childhood and the rows and rows of stuffed animals I played with. Closing the book, Edith “the lonely doll” stares out at me from the cover.
Fun With Dick and Jane, a reading primer, is another book I have to keep. My sister Judy’s name is pencil written in her first-grade-learning-to-write printing. When I read in big, black, block letters Judy Felman, I see my sister reading and ignoring me on the floor right in front of her while I’m studying the photographs of lonely Edith and her little bear friends. I must keep this book for another reason. It is archival material of how middle class white kids learned to read including all the traditional male/female gender roles. Fun With Dick and Jane taught me how to be good little “Christian” white girl. The original copyright says “1914.”
The books I absolutely can’t live without are mostly “old books,” from twenty, thirty or forty years ago: The Catcher In the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Tell Me A Riddle by Tillie Olsen, Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, and the plays “Death Of A Salesman” by Arthur Miller and “Angels In America” by Tony Kushner. Then there are the early, erotic, explicit lesbian-love poetry books from the 1980’s by Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas, and Adrienne Rich that my lovers inscribed to me. Reading this poetry for the first time, I wept to see my love of women reflected on the pages of a real book. The pile of books that I cannot let go of keeps getting higher and higher until I am surrounded. All I’ve accomplished is to move my beloved books from the shelves to the carpeted floor.
Then there is the problem of what to do with the books I no longer want and that none of my friends want, and the public libraries don’t want and many thrift shops don’t want because they have too much writing in them. What will happen to them? I (sort of) like the idea of shredding my books to make new paper to make new books. I imagine my books being shredded, title after title, until the books I’ve written come up in the shredder and they too will be lost, gone forever. Shredding my books is like shredding my life. I see words floating in air, right up to the clouds and never coming back. It is unbearable to part with my books.
What to do with my Jewish books? They’re in a separate pile, away from all the other books. There are prayer books in Hebrew and sacred texts with commentary on the Torah. My mother gave me a text of the Hebrew alphabet done in magnificent calligraphy. Each letter a work of art. In Judaism, it is forbidden to have any sacred text laying on the bare floor. It is also forbidden to throw any sacred texts away. They must be buried, deep into the earth, word by holy word. I see myself digging huge holes in the ground and kissing my books goodbye. Getting rid of “Jewish” books reminds me of how the Nazis burned hundreds of thousands of “Jewish” books during the Holocaust. I can’t imagine shredding the first prayer book I ever got.
How I can I put boxes of books that I will never read again in storage? I have to create a ritual for letting go. I could have my friends over for dinner, and we could talk about the books that matter to me, and chant “goodbye” to the rest. I’m crying sitting on the floor surrounded by my past. I need a “Kaddish,” a Jewish mourning prayer, for books. I no longer remember what many of the books I’m taking to the recycling center are about. I used to know and retain all the stories I read. I could look at a book and instantly remember the plot and the characters. In many ways the books are already gone. I’ll read books for the rest of my life. But the act of reading in the present is not as rich and complex as the memory of reading my favorite books years ago. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because my life was much lonelier.
Back then books fed my passion and imagination when no one else could.
Jyl Lynn Felman
Jyl Lynn Felman is the author of three books, Hot Chicken Wings, Cravings, and, Never A Dull Moment: Teaching And The Art of Performance. Her many performance pieces, include “Burning In Cuba,” and “Silicone Valley” about lesbian sex after breast cancer. “If Only I’d Been Born A Kosher Chicken” is available on C-SPANS’s performance series. She is currently touring with “Girl Kicks Girl” about her experience in Israel and Palestine. She can be reached at www.jyllynnfelman.com.