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Out of my way – I’m sorting! Periodically I get these fits and attempt to tackle the Mount Everests of paper and books that keep me company around the house. This time my hands are grey and covered with dust. I am sorting my great-grandfather Jacob Gordin’s books, because I’m going to give them away. 

I inherited fifty or so from his youngest daughter, my great-aunt Helen, who told me that her father had thousands of books in his library when he died – and I believe her. Those of you who’ve read my biography of his life and times know that he was an immensely well-read, serious-minded, literature-loving guy. At least, non-fiction literature, as well as poetry and drama – not a speck of fiction. 
The hard-cover tomes that have stood on my bookshelves for more than two decades are weighty and daunting: biographies of Dante, Honore de Balzac, Thomas Jefferson, George Eliot, Victor Hugo. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edgar Allen Poe, Percy B. Shelley, Lermontov (in Russian), Browning, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  The Anatomy of Melancholy, in two volumes. Socialism and Modern Science, with, written on the inside front cover, “J. Gordin – with compliments from the publishers. May 1, 1901.” Seven lectures by William Morris. A book on “Insectivorous Plants” and one on domestic animals by Charles Darwin, 1898. The History of the Commune of 1871 by Eleanor Marx Aveling, Karl’s daughter. 
There’s one I’d never noticed before – a tiny leather copy of As You Like it with, written inside, the name “Lillie Benedict.” So this book belonged to the daughter of Gordin’s best friend the beloved labour poet Morris Winchevsky, known to the Gordin family by his pseudonym Leopold Benedict. If Lillie’s grandchildren or great-grandchildren are out there somewhere and would like her book back, just ask.
And I found Education and the Good Life by Bertrand Russell.  I thought there must be some mistake –  I have a letter Bertrand Russell wrote to my father in 1960 about their mutual work in the Ban the Bomb movement. Jacob Gordin died almost 50 years before, in 1909 – how could he have read Russell? But a quick Wikipedia scan showed that Bertrand Russell was born in 1872 and died in 1970. He wrote to my father the lefty peacenik scientist, but he could have known, and I think would have liked, my great-grandfather the socialist playwright too. 
All these books and many more, every one stamped at the front “From Jacob Gordin’s Library.” But I need shelf space for newer books – books I might actually read, or have read and can’t let go. And these old books should be kept in a climate-controlled room and treated with proper care. So I wrote to my friend Aaron Lansky, who founded and runs the extraordinary National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, and he said that though the books aren’t in Yiddish, they’d be happy to receive them and put them on display. 
The Center gave me the name of their local zamler – the man who’ll pick up donated books in Toronto and send them to Amherst.  We arranged for him to come tomorrow, but I just called to postpone – that’s too soon. I’m not ready. I want to see what William Morris had to say, check out Eleanor Marx’s prose style and Russell’s, read about George Eliot’s life. Mostly, I want to sit with these volumes, hold them once more, and say goodbye. 
It’s embarrassing, but I’m tearing up as I write. I devoted countless hours to unearthing the life of this ancestor. These dusty disintegrating books, which he chose and read and cherished, are a bond through the generations, the only part of him that I will ever touch – these, and his gold-leaf nib pen and one of his canes. The time will come when I’ll give those away, too.
Recently in New York, I saw two of the Gutenberg bibles, printed in 1455. 1455! I urge my impatient students to think about self-publishing – to find a way to get their work into book form, because books last for a very long time.  A book is just the most beautiful, perfect package – easy to hold, use, and carry, the right size and shape, the right heft. 
And imagine, what’s packed inside are words and ideas. 

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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