The BEST: R. Sacks Bookshelves Project – A Closing Chapter

Chaim Strauchler Tradition Online | April 8, 2021

“What shall I do with all my books?” was the question; and the answer, “Read them,” sobered the questioner. But, if you cannot read them, at any rate handle and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition (Winston Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures).

The decluttering minimalism of this moment has made books into a problem: “What shall we do with all our books?” They take up precious space. Their preservation requires justification. Technology has made possessing physical tomes almost discretionary. They, after all, can be exorcised upon digital readers and audio recordings. When demanded, they can be printed off digital scans. Yet, it is not just the physical book – but the role of books and the type of knowledge they possess that are under question. Attention merchants have employed an array of distraction to replace deep absorption with the shallows of tweets, click bate, and the targeted ad. Forget space, who has time for a book?

Elli Fischer and David Bashevkin have recently written on the “shelfie,” a photo taken to show off what is on someone’s shelf:

The advent of digital culture has lessened the utility of printed books as storehouses of information and thus, somewhat ironically, increased their value as means of self-fashioning and self-curation. This process took another leap forward during the COVID-19 epidemic, when otherwise private or semi-private spaces became public on ZOOM, Facebook Live, and related applications. The more the naïveté of book-placement diminishes, the more we can expect to find significance in the books that are held, placed on a desk, or arranged on a shelf.

That books would be used as a means of preening and posturing depends on the assumption that a book’s position upon a shelf says something about the person who sits before it. Yet more might be said about a book’s interior design potential. Books brandish a more precious interior – that of the mind and soul. We are not just what we eat – but also what we think and quote. Within a modern society where our identity is always up for grabs, we are formed by the ideas that we arrange upon the “shelves” of our minds. True, some ideas flitter through and are gone, but some sit and dwell. They take a position within the inner stacks of our cognitive reference libraries. They become part of the furniture of our minds. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l had elaborate bookshelves of this type.

TraditionOnline’s Rabbi Sacks’ Bookshelves Project has sought to both mourn and celebrate R. Sacks by describing these bookshelves. We did not sneak into his Golders Green study. We did not perform a “shelfie” analysis of the furniture that stood behind him during the Zoom presentations of his last year of life. Rather, we looked at our own bookshelves upon which so many of his books sit. We opened those books and combed his bibliographies for the works that he quoted most.

It cannot be emphasized enough that R. Sacks’ bookshelves were occupied first and foremost by the classics of Jewish traditional scholarship. To that canon, he contributed new volumes which will be remembered long after other books are forgotten. While he wrote beautiful commentaries on the Siddur and the Humash – his legacy as a teacher reached far more deeply into the sea of Torah learning and surfaced many pearls with which both Jews and non-Jews might adorn examined lives. 

R. Sacks’ bookshelves contained classical and contemporary writers on philosophy, politics, and society, including popular research in psychology, ethics, economics, and sociology. In perusing his shelves, our writers sought to capture the unique wisdom and beauty within each text. Yet, they also found commonalities.

Our writers found echoes of their subjects’ life stories in R. Sacks himself: Whether in the ubiquity of Chesterton’s influence upon his colleagues and students; the insight of de Tocqueville into the challenges of the modern age, the roles of faith and family, and the power of community; Mandela’s enlarging the horizon of human hope; or the poetic and deeply spiritual paradoxes of Leonard Cohen. In thinking about the ways in which R. Sacks used these texts, our writers found a courageous fighter willing to engage the best that has been thought and said – even when, and especially when, those things threatened the religious personality – be it at the hands of Ayer, Freud, or the new atheists. Through it all, our writers found in R. Sacks’ shelves something hopeful and optimistic about the human intellect and its ongoing quest to create a better world. 

R. Sacks’ curiosity and excitement drove him to explore not just knowledge but also the people who generate knowledge. This was true not just in how he developed relationships with writers included in the project, among them MacIntyre, Putnam, and Taylor (not to mention our project’s writers themselves). It was also true of how he read. While a voracious reader of practically everything, his attention to fields like politics, psychology, ethics, economics, and sociology reflects a deep humanism – a love for people in all their curious convolutions. In the epilogue to his recent book Morality, R. Sacks describes his hopes for a post-COVID reality with the force of John Donne’s famous words, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

In the 12th century, Yehuda Ibn-Tibbon famously wrote in a letter to his son: “Sim sefarekha haverekha – Make your books your friends; let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens.”

As we close the Rabbi Sacks Bookshelves Project, it is well for us to remember how he began each of his public lectures. He would address his audience with the word, “Friends.” As we turn our gaze from R. Sacks’ bookshelves, we carry his friendship with us upon our own bookshelves, where he remains, as ever, among our very best companions. As we gaze upon the bookshelves and gardens that will bear our own names, may we continue to fill them with the best of teachers and friends. Hadran alakh ve-hadrakh alan…

The Rabbi Sacks Bookshelves Project concluded with a TRADITION Podcast episode among some of the series’ authors — listen here. Read more about The BEST or about the R. Sacks Bookshelves Project. The R. Sacks Bookshelves Project is presented in cooperation with the London School of Jewish Studies.


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