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.
Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better?
It was a feeling I’d had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth’s great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title!
You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis’s The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don’t Mean Anything). In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn’t quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy’s All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher).
King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne’s imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark.
Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight’s fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk.
There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike’s wonderful Bech stories. Bech’s first novel, a ’50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig (“which is,” Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “St. Bernard’s expression for the body”). And Bech’s blockbuster bestseller (Updike’s alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it’s practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech’s published work, including such echt-realistic entries as “”Lay off, Norman,” New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3.”
In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can’t its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books?
Perhaps it’s simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don’t Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you’ve got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they’ve dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf.
Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed–but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator’s anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn’t begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine’s Way (now that’s a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): “Jean Malaquais [Mailer’s mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. ‘Who is that?’ ‘A novelist more talented than yourself.'”
But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman’s early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth’s own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it’s generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear.
Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna’s novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing’s central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull’s novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger’s nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don’t mean anything. And the phrase “a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary” exactly describes the plot of Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego’s imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading.
Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren’t called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren’t intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be “realistic” (in the sense that Henry Bech’s book titles, in Updike’s stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it’s another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don’t live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas?
Image Credit: Wikipedia.