The Credibility Bookshelf
The Credibility Bookshelf is an artefact of the lock down. It is the bookshelf you see casually, perhaps inadvertently, arrayed behind someone who is speaking from an accustomed place at home, so the bookshelf is a glimpse of what he or she has read, is reading, will read. A few weeks ago, I recorded a reading with my phone in front of a bookshelf, and soon I got an email with the comment “I am sure that you have seen all the commentary about the new habit of looking at books behind Zoom speakers and crafted arrangements. Well, I am afraid I did look behind you at your books during your sermon. I didn’t recognise many of them, but I did spot Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. … I think he would have been delighted to know that his work could be spotted during a religious sermon.” This was a little embarrassing for me because, as I noted in reply, “I have to admit that, although I have some familiarity with the concepts, I have not read the book.”
Of course, I removed the Kant from my “credibility bookshelf” and now the books that can be seen on it are books I have read. And the process of looking through them has been like encountering old friends from whom you haven’t heard in some time. You remember that there was a wedding, but was it his? Or his brother’s?
When I leafed through some of the books I was struck by how unfamiliar they turned out to be – my memories of them were reduced to a few high points. I will have to read them again.
What were these books? There are too many to discuss in this article, but here are a few:
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 3 volumes. I was singing with a touring opera company out of San Francisco in 1980, and we spent as much as seven hours a day on a bus. It was a great opportunity to read things that I would never ordinarily have had the patience for. I remember virtually nothing of the book, except that I came to a gradual halt somewhere in the middle of the second volume. It’s still waiting for me to finish it.
The Collected Essays of George Orwell. I love the essay form, and I have every volume of the annual Best American Essays series, from 1986, on another bookshelf in the house. I enjoyed the Orwell essays a lot. What I remember most is the sense of the man himself that comes through each essay; I wanted to meet him.
Shirei Yerushalayim, by Yehuda Amichai. Amichai is my favourite poet, and I had the pleasure of seeing him present his work in person a few times. I also happened to sit near him at a concert in Washington DC. He was a formidable presence, and his poetry is well worth exploring. This collection, Shirei Yerushalayim, or Poems of Jerusalem, is a way to experience the amazing and unique city of Jerusalem, seen through Amichai’s powerful poetry.
Does God Have a Big Toe? Stories about Stories in the Bible, by Marc Gellman is a wonderful collection of modern midrash, stories that perhaps should have been in the Hebrew Bible but aren’t to be found there. These stories are great for young people, and adults can enjoy them as well. I wanted to use them for story-telling and couldn’t find my copy, so I bought another one. The copy I already had was, of course, sitting on the credibility bookshelf right behind me. So now I have two.
Life is with People, by Zborowski and Herzog, a sociological study of the shtetl, the little Jewish villages of Eastern Europe, which of course are now completely gone, having been erased along with their inhabitants in the Shoah. My mother came from one, from which she and her family left for the United States when she was a child.
Although the scholarship of this book has been superseded, it is a moving portrayal of a culture that informs much of what we think of as Jewish, and is for me a connection to my mother.
My credibility bookshelf is more than just a collection of books. I have described only a few of the books on it. Each one is a story, and each is also part of the story of my life. It is in some ways my autobiography, as I am sure your own book collections are for you.
Rabbi Cantor Gershon Silins