I have always been a lover of books. Even when I was a young student in the yeshiva many decades ago I would read books on all sorts of different subjects. Back then, I then used the meager financial resources at my disposal to purchase books. Prices were different then and for three dollars I was able to obtain classic books by great Talmudic scholars.
When I was a rabbi in Miami Beach, I often had the experience of finding a pile of Hebrew books on my doorstep placed there by the heirs of the previous generation. Apparently the children and grandchildren of the deceased had no use for their books and simply disposed of them by leaving them on the doorstep of the rabbi or the synagogue building.
Most of those books I had to dispose of myself. However, in the pile there always was a certain special book, even on occasion a rare book that caught my eye and interest that I kept for myself. I never had the resources or inclination to become a true book collector but I acquired a very large library over my years in the rabbinate.
A number of great rabbinic scholars visited my home in Monsey in order to do research, as I had a book that apparently was no longer available to them. There was a time when I knew the location of every book on my shelves. Not only did I have books of Jewish scholarship and Torah value but I also had books relating to general world history and biography as well as some much lighter reading, which gave me some psychological relief from the pressures of the rabbinate.
When I moved to Israel, I left a substantial part of my library in the United States. My much smaller quarters in our apartment here in Jerusalem did not afford me the space to bring them all with me. There are times now when I am working on writing a book or making a presentation/lecture that I recall a fascinating insight or anecdote, which appeared in one of the books that I once owned.
I picture the book on the shelf back in Monsey and to my dismay I then realize that it is not here with me in Jerusalem. This happens to me so often that my level of frustration over it is now much diminished since I no longer really expect to be able to find the book here. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised by the fact that I do have the book here and I am even more amazed that I was able to find it amongst the book shelves that line my apartment.
All of my bookshelves are full to overflowing and therefore I no longer purchase any new books. There are many that I would wish to acquire put practicality dictates that I restrain my acquisitive instincts. Also, the fact that there is an enormous amount of material that I can access through CDs that I own and from the thousands of books available on the internet softens the blow that I can no longer, in good conscience, purchase books to bring home.
Jews have always had a reverence for books. There is an anecdote regarding Jewish professor, Harry Wolfson, who was one of the first Jews to acquire tenure at Harvard University. This was in the beginning of the twentieth century when academic anti-Semitism in the United States was open and palpable. Wolfson was once confronted by one of his colleagues who said to him: “Why do you Jews think you are so special?!” Wolfson is reported to have coolly answered: “As far as I know, we are the only people who when we drop a book on the floor, we pick it up and kiss it.”
This attitude towards books, in the Jewish mindset, is not limited only the books of holiness and Torah. Many surveys have shown that Jews constitute a large bloc of the book purchasing public in the United States, far greater than their numbers and population would warrant. Of course, there are a lot of trashy books in circulation, many of which actually prove more popular and outsell books of greater worth and gravity.
So, like everything else in life, there are positive and potentially negative consequences in acquiring and reading books. History has shown us that banning books is counterproductive to the very cause that it is attempting to protect. One must become a connoisseur of books in order to obtain the full value of having and reading books. But the old Hebrew adage that “books should be members of your household” still certainly applies in the Jewish world.