We’ve been given marching orders, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
In between classes I duck into the library to appraise the situation. It’s bad. The building has succumbed to decay. A stone’s throw from where I sleep, the library—aka the Sifriya (ספרייה) because everything here has a Hebrew name, as well as an abbreviation: The Sif—stinks with no fans or functional windows. Forget about that glorious mountain breeze endemic to Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the room smells like 50-year-old carpet, like tube socks, lake scum, fallen pines. But the fug and must are a comfort. This is the smell of my childhood. I am no longer a child and yet still I’m here, working at camp. A psychology for another day: my choices steeped in nostalgia, arrested development, a pressing hunger for vicarious joys. But the practical answer is teaching has become an affordable way to bring my kids here for the summer. I’m an adjunct. Over the years, I’ve come to view this month upstate as my own rustic residency: I teach by day and write at night. It may be no Yaddo, but time moves at a slower place, allowing for deeper concentration without the pull of city life or the buzz of social media.
Narrow in scope, modest in size, it’s remarkable we have a library at all. We have one because this is not a sports camp or an arts camp but an educational camp, a Jewish educational camp, and, as the story goes, we people of the Book have been known to geek out on the written word.
A familiar fantasy: If you build it they will come. When the building was erected in the ’70s, the stacks were filled floor to ceiling with donations from synagogues, existing libraries, day schools, generous readers. When I was a camper we called the Sif “the new building.” We unfurled sleeping bags and watched the Raid on Entebbe every summer on that rust-colored rug. And yet: Even back when the place was new, the books inside were already old.
A longstanding librarian once sat behind the desk though I’ve never seen a person check out a book. I don’t know what she did—read the occasional picture book to younger children, stories about latkes run amok, or the Golem of Prague—but at least during her tenure there was some pretense of order: benches straight, wrappers in the trash. Without oversight, the place has fallen into chaos.
“Clear it out,” we’ve been told. “Everything must go.” For days, I do this: I visit the library. Before lunch, during rest hour. The shelves are mossed in dust and mouse droppings and dead flies. I vanish in the stacks, remove a book. Paperbacks crumble in my hand, pages thin as insect wings. Cloth covers separate from hardbacks, glue breaking from spines, unraveling threads of dried tack. I open them anyway. I say hello to Sholem Aleichem, to Isaac Babel and Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Wise Men of Helm. I touch the sordid remains of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Maybe I pocket one or three.
Past summers I’ve stolen Herzog, Call It Sleep, The Mind-Body Problem. I am a thief, but I prefer to imagine my actions as redemptive. Whatever I take is not missed. Better with me, I tell myself. Better to cherish these titles in the comfort of my home then to let them rot, up here, exposed to the elements, suffer more damage, sustain another unloved and lonely winter.
How can we possibly get rid of them all?
Initially, I possess an impulse to open my arms and rescue the entire shabby library, some kind of foster mother of orphaned literature, to squirrel it away to my cabin, filling every surface with text, and suffocate a romantic death from vellichor, from the hopelessly wistful longing of worlds lived through used books.
But I’m fooling myself. For one, there are practical matters: I hardly have room for a bed in my bunk much less a library. How could I drive my spoils back to Brooklyn? As it is, either child or duffel may need to be strapped to the car’s roof. There are also health issues: These books are coated in forty years of death and bat shit.
Rodents, insects, cobwebs thick as surgical gauge. This is to be expected. It is camp. We are not versed in archival preservation. Books sit out on the shelves untreated season after season.
The bats are a more recent development. Apparently, the library’s infested. There is nocturnal video footage to prove it. A colony has been living in the ceiling for god knows how long. Bats flit through the stacks, raining midnight urine and feces. The brittle bodies of Night (of which there are nine copies) splashed in a sickly yellow film.
“What’s that disease you can get from bats?” I ask? My co-worker hands me gloves and a mask.
We are the education staff so it is only natural that the task falls to us. We have been summoned to break down the library. To eliminate the problem.
This is our fate. And so it becomes our crime.
I warn everyone. The arts and craft staff, the counselors. I tell the campers I teach, I tell my own kids: They’re emptying the library. This is your last chance.
No one comes. My kids look at me like, Mom, why are you talking? Two minutes, I beg, and they comply to avoid further embarrassment. My daughter finds a battered Marjorie Morningstar, my son The Magic Barrel.
That leaves thousands of books to go.
Some of my colleagues are more efficient. They get down to business, try to lessen the blow by keeping the banter bubbly, a warm bath of memories. Oh how I loved The Bread Givers! C’mon, has anyone actually read S.Y. Agnon?
At first we make piles, like that home improvement show: Trash, Donate, Keep. We fill crates with those in decent condition; those with enough relevancy and staying power to be transferred. The hope: If not here, perhaps on shinier shelves they may be plucked, handled, loved, read.
Because we aren’t getting rid of a library altogether. After it’s torn down it will be rebuilt. We remind ourselves this to feel less terrible about what we’re doing. We’re not Philistines, Romans trashing the Second Temple, whose destruction we’d commemorated on Tisha B’Av only days before.
We all tell stories in order to live with ourselves.
There will still be a library: new and improved.
Other questions arise: Why does the library house 98 percent Jewish, Hebrew, or religious texts? Had the limited catalogue been born 40 years ago upon the notion that it should reflect the camp’s ideological focus? Or was the content far less intentionally curated? Could it be this is merely the inventory received upon a call for donation? I don’t know. Perhaps this is why the books have sat largely untouched for almost half a century. Wouldn’t everyone benefit from a collection that is broader, more pluralistic in scope? Does a Jewish camp need a strictly Jewish library?
In grad school, I wrote a thesis on Jewish American literature, pitting the tenets of iconic authors: Roth, Bellow, Kafka, Malamud against concerns of contemporaries: Judy Budnitz, Nathan Englander, Myla Goldberg, Ethan Canin. This was in 2002. In interviews, we talked about the dangers and merits of labels. Could there be a unifying ethos, or was this thinking inherently reductive? The grappling felt necessary, however fraught.
Then, as now: Is the category still relevant, or have principles of “Jewish American” been subsumed into the mainstream? Can classification ever be useful or is it solely problematic? To what extent can outsider status be claimed in the face of widespread assimilation? Against the evergreen backdrop of anti-Semitism?
Of course, it’s personal. These are the books I grew up on. Women, too: Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, but overwhelmingly, men. Theirs are the cadent voices in my head, followed by the murmurings of the siddur, the desert wanderings of the five books of Moses. They fuel my passion, frustrations, and rage.
All my life, in some way or another I’ve been writing toward or against this canon. These are the contradictions I carry: The push/pull of tradition, the identification with custom and rejection of law, the foundational wrestling with patriarchy. Classic themes: anxiety, alienation, annihilation, guilt, expectation, desire. Who am I? A Jewish writer, a female writer, a mother writer, an American writer, an East Coast writer, a writer of a certain age, and so on. I recognize the enormous privilege of being able to embrace and slough labels, to see identity as expansive and not limiting. To be this and this. All of these are what make me.
Roth is dead two months. I find a honeyed clipping inside the pages of a book from a local Philadelphia newspaper. The date: 1981. Zuckerman Unbound had just come out. Here he is in the photo, wide slab of forehead, hair dark and thick, bushy at the ears. He looks stern but ironic, young and not, the way fathers look like fathers even when they are just people hanging a coat, cracking jokes through tears, trying to eke out an imperfect life.
The “keep” crate fills quickly. We can save one Malamud, but we don’t need five paperbacks of The Fixer. We probably don’t even need one, if we’re honest. One copy of The Chosen, for old time’s sake. After all, Potok is another famous alum. Where would I be without Seize the Day? But how much Bellow can we possibly hold onto? When is it time to let go?
Donate, we decide. Donate, Donate. Now the donate bins are bursting because we are—I am—being sentimental. Remember: books are losing pages, pulp dissolving to dust, covers defiled in waste. Who would want them?
The Salvation Army in Honesdale has no demand for literature of this ilk. To donate would be more burden than gift. We are in the boondocks. An ugly reality: No one is coming for them. Crates marked “donate” devolve into recycle. We are not ready to call them trash, even as we drag out the industry-strength garbage bags, stuff them with sexism, electric prose. Oh the campfire we could build on Roth alone!
In this way we yield to our directive. We kill, destroy. We throw out the Jewish canon.
There is a heat wave and our bodies are slick with sweat, with filth, our fingers blackened. We cough on dust, on lousy air. Israeli staffers are summoned to address the secular Hebrew catalogue, to sift through Amos Oz in his native tongue, to salvage Curtis Sittenfeld’s translated Prep from the tragic heap.
Then there are the rabbis. The rabbis have a duty unique from the lay staff. They must weed out religious texts: prayer books, Torah, the shelves upon shelves of commentary. But they can’t simply toss the tattered and torn. A law prohibits Jews from destroying God’s name when it is written out in full, not abbreviated. Four Hebrew letters: Yud. Hey. Vav. Heh.
Instead, the holy word is buried in a special place called a Genizah, which means “hiding,” or “to put away.” Rabbis designate volumes to this repository. Later, they’ll be transferred to a ritualistic resting place. There is a small burial spot on boys’ campus. Every year the ground is opened to receive these sacred pages. This year, there is so much; we can’t possibly accommodate it all. Some will be shipped to a cemetery off-site.
In the afternoon, our director visits. He understands what he’s asked of us. He is an academic and a reader and he has no slim grasp of history. The purge continues. We’ve dragged a fortress of garbage bags onto the porch and are racing against the clock. Soon, it will be dusk. Another day, then Sabbath, and all work will stop.
The director brings us Fanta and Chipwiches from the canteen as a reward for our efforts. We crack cans on the porch, our lips blazing orange, and for a minute we are not callous educators and rabbis, but children, hopped up on sugar. We close our eyes and tilt our faces toward the sun.
Finally, the trucks arrive. We sling bags onto flatbeds with fresh gusto, steel-toned plastic stretched to breaking. We set up an operation chain. Pass, hurl. Drivers make trips. We’re told the books are headed to recycling dumpsters located across the road. From there, they’ll be recycled, returned to pulp, made into paper, they’ll turn into books once again. I do not challenge this. I don’t rush to the camp’s dusty edges to inspect their final destination nor do I investigate the recycling system of Wayne County, Pennsylvania.
There is no Kaddish. There are only girls laughing, headed up for dinner.
Maybe it’s less about loss but about what remains. I try to picture future generations walking this tired earth, churning up the fields. What will they find? Time capsules of scrunchies, mixed tapes, putty. Will there still be a camp here, a library in 50 years? Will people dig up buried prayers? Or will the worms have gotten to them, turning the sacred to soil?
As the sun sets behind the dining hall, I arrive at an uncertain peace. Everywhere is an infinite mourning. All we can do is cast our hope on those who’ll follow into these woods: their thoughts and discoveries, what they’ll do and make, the new books they’ll write onto shelves, how they’ll bristle against all the difficult living questions whose answers I may never know.
Many—maybe even most—of my favorite books are novels narrated by an observer who does not consider themselves the main actor in the story. Think Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby’s sort-of friend, the perfect mournfully sardonic narrator for one of American literature’s most enduring novels. I love stories told by the supposedly innocent bystander; the less charismatic best friend; the hapless fan or scholar whose own life recedes in the shadow of their subject of adoration.
I especially love books like this because they are honest in two ways other narrative forms are often not. First, a non-protagonist narrator acknowledges the fact that storytelling is always, always about perspective. In the same way history is dictated by the victors, stories are dictated by the people with the ability and inclination to write them down, and the meta-fiction created by a self-aware narrator telling someone else’s story can be beautifully tense, disarmingly frank, and entertainingly specious. Second, the non-protagonist narrator acknowledges obsession—an obsession with another person that inspired the character to take the time to set down this story in writing at all. They seethe with charisma, jealousy, and longing of one form or another. This is why I chose this narrative form for my own novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna.
I’m not the only one who loves to read this mode of storytelling; many of the traditional candidates for Great American Novel follow the format: besides The Great Gatsby, there is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, in which reporter Jack Burden tells the story of politician Willie Stark; or John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, in which jealous introvert prep schooler Gene obsesses over his outgoing and talented roommate, Phineas. But the list of relevant masterpieces is long and absolutely need not adhere to the reading we did in high school back before “the canon” was including much besides white men. Here are a few of my favorites.
1. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Let’s go ahead and go all the way back to the beginning, to what is argued to be the first-ever novel, composed around the year 1010 AD. The story is related by an unnamed female speaking to a social superior, as is evident in the form of verb conjugation used. It describes the love affairs and misadventures of Genji, a minor son of the Emperor. The identity of the narrator is never revealed, but some believe the text hints that she might be one of Genji’s (rather many) lovers.
2. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Detective fiction has a long tradition of an average Joe narrator who relates the adventures of a whimsical genius investigator—a tradition that goes all the way back to the mystery genre’s inception with Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. With The Name of the Rose (1980), Eco offers a hyper-intellectual pastiche of that archetype with a murder mystery set in a 14th-century Italian convent in which a bumbling Benedictine novice, Adso, describes the crime-solving antics of his master, a monk named William of Baskerville.
3. Passing by Nella Larsen
This 1929 novel is narrated by Irene Redfield, a light-skinned black woman who learns a friend from her Chicago childhood, Clare Kendry, has been living as a white woman, married to a virulently racist white man and completely cut off from her roots. Irene’s obsession with Clare’s choice—and the light it sheds on her own choices—cause her to spin back into the woman’s orbit no matter how much she tells herself she’s done with Clare.
4. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
The narrator of this 1945 novel is Fanny, an upper-class English girl who is abandoned by her parents to live with wealthy relatives. Fanny is relating the life and exploits of Linda Radlett, her cousin and best friend, whose love affairs and impetuous adventures wholly distract the reader from Fanny’s absence in her own story.
5. Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
This 1994 novel is the story of Sophie Caco, who is 12 years old when she emigrates from Haiti to join her mother in New York, but really it is the story of Sophie’s enigmatic mother, Martine, whose traumatic history inflicts itself not only on her relationship with Sophie but also, viscerally, on Sophie herself.
6. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
Set in the New York City Orthodox Jewish community at the end of World War II, this 1967 novel is narrated by Reuven, a Modern Orthodox boy from a Zionist family, who is deeply committed to and fascinated by his sometimes controversial friendship with Danny, the genius son of a Hassidic rabbi.
7. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Another favorite of mine that highlights the emotional intensity of a platonic friendship. In this 2012 novel, Elena, the narrator, builds her life around and in relief against her unpredictable and addictive best friend, Lila, a thwarted and moody genius who causes steadfast Elena to underestimate herself.
8. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Quentin Compson, the troubled Harvard student we saw commit suicide in The Sound and the Fury, narrates the life story of Thomas Sutpen, a larger-than-life slave-holding plantation owner from Quentin’s native Mississippi in this 1936 novel. The narrative framework, a conversation between Quentin and his roommate, incorporates historical fact and conjecture and highly personalized interpretation—one of my favorite allegories for the way it shows how history is preserved.
9. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
This 2005 novel hits heavy on one of my favorite themes: remorse. Its 80-year-old narrator, Lily, reveals how the story of her own long life has been framed by that of her long-lost best friend, Snow Flower, and how she let her obsession with their friendship ruin both their lives.
10. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
A bit of a cheat selection, because the narrator of this 1961 novel is a third person omniscient, but it connects the reader to a group of six Scottish school girls who are all equally obsessed with their vivacious, unconventional, and fascist teacher, Miss Brodie, whom they adore, obey, and betray.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Design Ecologist.