Thursday, September 10, 2015

`About How to Live Well'

“Unfortunately, all of these works were lost under Hitler’s occupation of Austria.” 

A lament that could be echoed by thousands. The author of “A Memoir of My Library” is the great Jewish scholar Salo Wittmayer Baron (1895-1989), author of the three-volume A Social and Religious History of the Jews, published in 1937 when the Holocaust was  Hitler’s fantasy. Baron was born in, Tarnow, Poland, home to 20,000 Jews before the war. Twenty survived. Among the dead were Baron’s parents and sister. Baron left Vienna and settled in New York City in 1927. Dedicated readers worry about the security and fate of their libraries, and Baron had more cause than most, living in a time when the burning of books was public policy. The works he refers to above were his own youthful poems, written in Hebrew, Polish and German. His next sentence is typical of Baron’s nuanced sense of irony: “But not until I was a teenager did I become a passionate buyer of books.” He writes: 

“Independently I continue to collect books for myself, after losing most of the books I had assembled before World War I during the brief Russian occupation of Tarnov in 1914. I succeeded in assembling a presentable collection on my shelves in New York after I became established there as a teacher at the JIR [Jewish Institute of Religion] and at Columbia.” 

“Presentable” is perfectly calibrated. Baron was a man for whom the nature of private and public libraries was highly permeable. He started libraries the way some people start reading a novel. The poet Norm Sibum wrote to me on Wednesday: “Good to see someone go on about C.H. Sisson,” referring to that other well-read adept of irony. At the conclusion of “Looking at Old Note-Books” (God Bless Karl Marx!, 1987; Collected Poems, 1998; A C.H. Sisson Reader, 2014), Sisson writes: 

“Naturally I advise
The young who would be wise
To follow my example.
They should all read examples
Of the philosophers, I recommend
The moralists of course and
The epistemologists,
There is a long list.
They are not to reject
The theologians, I expect
They will find them illuminating.
Imaginative writing
Isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:
Take it cautiously.
Avoid writing poems, a frequent
Cause of discontent;
You may read one occasionally
And that is all
--And all I can tell
You about how to live well.” 

[Thanks to Mark Marowitz for the Salo Wittmayer Baron link.]

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