My received tradition, Orthodox Judaism, identifies its faithful as the “people of the book.” After years of serving as steward of the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Chicago, I have come to think of the community of bookish types who respect and love texts as the “people of the bookstore.”
My book In Praise of Good Bookstores, a celebration and replication of the browsing experience, considers the bookstore through five lenses: space, abundance, value, community, and time. My initial outline for the book included a sixth lens: reverence.
In the end, I did not include this sixth chapter, but I found that while writing the book, reverence seeped into every chapter anyway. How could it not? How could I write about space without speaking of altars or sanctuaries? What would it mean to speak of community and not celebrate the divine presence the rabbis tell us descends upon a meeting when bookish teachings are shared? Or to speak of time and not mark the transition from common to sacred time, or the hours of remembering and the hours of forgetting, or eternal and ephemeral moments? And so I infused the five chapters with reverence and included quite a bit of religious material.
One of my favorite Hebrew blessings is “Oseh Maaseh Breshit” (“that the world is”). One recites it when confronting natural wonders—including what insurers call “acts of god” (hurricanes, earthquakes, lightning)—thanking the God who forever, continuously creates their creation. That creation was created with a word: “God said, ‘Let there be Light,’ and there was light.” In Ecclesiastes, Solomon, the son of David, tells us that “of making many books there is no end.” Perhaps this is a lamentation to some—it certainly seems so to Solomon—but to the people of the bookstore, this is a great cause of wonder and delight.
Reverence isn’t a strictly religious concept. Wittgenstein said that “the mystical is not how the world is, but that it is.” One of Heraclitus’s extant fragments reads: “the sun is not only new each day, but forever, continuously new.” Emerson, in “American Scholar,” wrote that “books are the best influence of the past,” and that “the theory of books is noble.”
What is this theory? That the first generation of scholars received the word spoken, ruminated over it, distilled it, and passed it along to the next generation, who stewarded the word for the next, and so forth. Of the making of humans there is no end; God continually creates creation.
There are just so many books. How wonderful. “Each age must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding,” writes Emerson, and who would want it any other way? After all, we are all singular, searching for truths that resonate with us, even if no one else can hear that resonance.
The bookstore I steward, the Seminary Co-op, carries over 100,000 titles. Of the 28,000 titles we sold in 2019, nearly 17,000 were single copies, sought by a unique reader. Our paths to the sacred are single-use.
My friend Sam, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, asked a Jewish theologian to explain what made the Torah so special. “Why can’t I feel the same way about Pilgrim at Tinker Creek?” The theologian told him that he could like any book just as much, certainly, but if he took Annie Dillard’s book as his Bible, he would create a totally idiosyncratic religion for himself. “There’s no way of sharing these experiences in the close community of people who embrace the same text.”
Again, what some hear as lamentation, I and mine hear as celebration; the lure of the idiosyncratic for the heterodox. What binds us to one another in close community are these bookish spaces themselves.
I grew up in a tradition that regards texts as sacred. It was forbidden to place a sacred text on the floor, or to place a secular text on top of a sacred text (there was even a proper order in which to pile sacred books). We would kiss the cover of the sacred text after using it—a habit I have retained here and there, after a particularly inspired reading session.
Books have helped me live a better life. Does that make them sacred? I carry certain spine-tingling lines with me as incantations. Does that make them prayers? I know of no better “manuals for being human,” as Hemon wrote, than books that capture the truth of the way we live now, the way we think, the way we love, and the way we yearn for something greater. By their example, we learn how to live, what to do, and perhaps as importantly, what not to do.
What makes a text sacred? There are many answers to this question, but I learned mine from the Jewish tradition in which I was raised. I have assembled my personal canon, which I return to in times of need—whether in strength or weakness, good times or bad—in order to fortify the spirit and focus the heart and mind on what matters most in the world.
I turn to Dillard, who thought “that the dying pray at the last not ‘please,’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door.” She concludes, “I go my way, and my left foot says ‘Glory,’ and my right foot says ‘Amen’: in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.”
Though separated by 3,000 years, David’s and Annie Dillard’s psalms can’t help but seem coeval. I keep them shelved side by side in my collection, in a bookcase reserved for sacred texts.
Jeff Deutsch is the director of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago and the author of In Praise of Good Bookstores.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.