Drugged by Books

Soon after my father’s death, I started reading Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish, his journal of reflections on his year of going to shul and saying Kaddish. In the days and weeks ahead, Wieseltier offered me some consolation: “The disconsolate are the masters of consolation. They offer sympathy without illusion.” [581]

In Kaddish Wieseltier immerses himself in the teachings of the rabbis on the Kaddish prayer over the centuries. Throughout this chastening year, Wieseltier’s love for paper is palpable. Here are a few excerpts:

I was bred for bookishness. [vii]

I see no reason why the careful cognition of a text cannot provide a similar stimulation, a similar suggestiveness. During my year in mourning, certainly, I employed the texts of Judaism as supports for contemplation. That is to say, I scrutinized these laws and these legends to the best of my ability, and then I turned them to my own purposes, to my own severities. I consulted the thoughts of my precursors so as to attain to my own thoughts. [ix]

It is in the hall of study that we pray. The beauty of the room is owed to its homeliness. It is decorated only with books. When I stand by the wall of books, I feel as if I am standing on the shore of an immensity. [5]

I don’t know what to do. No, I know what to do. I will open a book. [6]

This motive for study is often overlooked. Knowledge is not only for oneself, it is also for others; not only for the satisfaction of one’s own thirsts, but also for the fulfillment of one’s obligations to others, whose occasions require the interventions of tradition. The great unlettered Jewish community of America could use a couple of million encounters with Akiva. Or do they expect their children to save them? Their children, who will inherit an ignorance of Jewish tradition unprecedented in Jewish history? [44]

When I leave the teahouse, the day’s study is over, but the day’s thinking has just begun. [66]

I study the old texts because I hope to be infected by their dimensions, to attain the size of what I read. [75]

Jews who open their books do so for one of two reasons: to make themselves more like the tradition or to make the tradition more like themselves. [76]

Back and forth from my desk to my shelves, ten, twenty, thirty times a day. The sources swirl around me. I am drugged by books. The sweet savor rises from the pages. A delirium of study. [84-85]

I get to shul early this evening. There is only one thing to do when you get to shul early. You open a book. [90]

On my desk, my books are like my peonies. I am pleased by the sight of them closed and clenched with promise, and then I am pleased by the sight of them opening, until they reveal the fullness that I expect of them. [138]

One of the most dreaded eventualities in a man’s life has overtaken me, and what do I do? I plunge into books! I can see that this is bizarre. It is also Jewish. Anyway, it is what I know how to do. [172]

But I come away from Loew’s text with the general principle that intellectual activity is a variety of spiritual activity. It is a practice of individuation. One thinks within the confines of one mind, one vibrates within the confines of one soul. In such confinement, freedom. [279]

Whenever I read Kafka, I wonder: what sort of dejection is this, that leaves one the strength to write, and write, and write? If you can write about the wreckage, the wreckage is not complete. You are intact. Here is a rule: the despairing writer is never the most despairing person in the world. [210-211]

Give me no gold. Give me no silver. Give me paper. (A prayer.) [290]

Aaron of Modena: Do not let the Torah or the Talmud slip away from you–no, study day and night, according to your abilities. [309]

My library looked like a graveyard tonight, and every book looked like a grave. But one must open these graves and enter them. Inside these graves, there is life. [355]

Paper is stronger than stone. The Jews knew this. [355]

The difference between study and prayer is the difference between thinking and feeling, between knowing and wanting, between what is within our power and what is beyond our power, between toil and arousal, between the life that does not pass and the life that passes. [466]

I have retreated to my room and built a wall of books around me, and I am tracking the mourner’s headwear through the tradition. [480]

I have the original edition of Bernfeld’s work, with its dark brown wrappers and its gorgeous fonts. My copy is badly beat up. I found it many years ago, at the bottom of a box of old books, in Mr. Stein’s dusty bookshop in Jerusalem. Mr. Stein warned me that the books were almost too frail to use. “They look like they were saved from a fire,” he said. “They were saved from a fire,” I said. When I see them on my shelf, I see the fire. [505]

I am browsing in Biegelseisen’s bookstore, surrounded by black hats and black beards and black caftans, when suddenly I feel that I must never leave this musty place again. Here in this room, arranged on tables and shelves, is what I need. Here is what the millennia were for. I feel tiny and happy. The books plead: stay, stay, stay. I am quivering, like the willing victim of a seduction. At the last minute, I pay my bill and get away. (At the last minute before what?) [522-523]

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