This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 27, 2013.
By Marda Dunsky
The room is small, the smallest of four bedrooms in a comfortable home in a serene subdivision of a North Shore suburb a few miles inland from Lake Michigan. On a recent afternoon, I was to help my Uncle Aaron in this room with a task he had put off for as long as he could. We were to begin sorting through his books, which had piled up on shelves and cascaded onto the desk and floor, its brown wooden planks strewn with piles of tomes and bags and boxes holding even more.
When Uncle Aaron and Aunt Charlotte moved into this house 30 years ago, their three children grown and the first of six grandchildren on the way, he had reserved this small bedroom on the ground floor as his office. Two years later, having finished serving seven terms in the Illinois General Assembly, he had carted a desk recycled from the House floor, outfitted with microphone and companion red leather chair, up from Springfield. Together they became the centerpiece of the room.
But over the years, that centerpiece had become obscured by his overflowing collection of books, and the shelving around the perimeter of the room had grown to bulging with all manner of volumes. The imperative to weed through them now was driven by his and Charlotte's impending move to smaller quarters.
I positioned a chair so Aaron could sit next to one of the bookcases, and he selected a book with resignation and sadness. "How can you throw a book away?" he asked, shaking his head.
"Uncle Aaron," I said gently, trying to sound encouraging rather than judgmental, "if you are committed to making this change, then you'll decide that some of your books are more important than others. Those that you don't keep, you'll donate — and they will give other people pleasure."
On that afternoon and two that followed, we made our way through the shelves and their overflow. It was a slow and deliberative process: My uncle considered each one of the hundreds of books individually, studying the cover and corresponding page bearing publication details; reciting synopsis of topic or plot; and then deciding whether he would keep the book or relinquish it to the slowly mounting discard pile.
I stood at his side, parceling out the books and watching him bestow attention upon each one — whether hard- or paperbound, pocket-sized, quarto or folio — as if it were a living thing worthy of compassion if not profound respect. Having spent the next 20 years of his career after the legislature as a judge, now Aaron appeared to apply the same careful and sensitive consideration that he must have extended to the people who had appeared before him in court.
As our work progressed and the afternoon light gradually softened, it was not only reverence for the printed word that he exuded. Also manifest was the sheer range of his interests as reflected in the mélange to which we were gradually bringing order.
As we made our way around the room, it became apparent that those interests congregated around the topics of American and world history, Judaica and humor — rendered in nonfiction and fiction alike. Beyond these also emerged indications of Aaron's affection for the American cinema, biographies of American writers and artists, and even bird-watching. ("Mardala," he admonished, when I suggested that he give up one such book, "birds are wonderful creatures. Do you have something against birds?")
In the main, Aaron was reluctant to part with books that fell under these rubrics. However, I did manage to persuade him to give up "The Story of Mankind," a pocket-sized paperback imprinted with a 25-cent price on the cover and containing a narrative that spanned from the earliest prehistoric humans to the eve of World War II.
As we progressed shelf by shelf, I could visualize how this collection came to be: the many hours Aaron had spent wandering through bookstores; the many Father's Days and birthdays on which his gifts had been books. As our odyssey continued, we discovered three sets of doubles: two each of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The First Circle," David McCullough's biography "Truman" and Harry Golden's "Only in America."
Indeed, here was evidence of a life well-lived, well-considered: a coming of age at mid-century that embraced family life and a robust career in public service while still finding the time to engage with others' ideas — engagement that yielded intellectual ferment instead of mere entertainment. Here was evidence of a lifelong devotion to absorbing knowledge and information, rooted in an era that required active thinking on the part of the devotee, long before such pursuits became trivialized, in large measure, by other media and other means.
When Aaron and I emerged from our triage of his collection, the imprint of our success went beyond the order of the room having been restored and its load lightened by about one-fifth of the original 1,200 or so volumes. Some would be donated to Little City, others to a synagogue book drive. It seemed as if my uncle lamented having let go each book, even as he knew that paring down his holdings served a greater good.
And having been his accomplice in this, I could not help myself just a week later when, shopping for a gift for his 83rd birthday, I settled on something that I knew would lift his spirits.
- Marda Dunsky is an adjunct lecturer in journalism at Northwestern University.