In which a publisher burns books.
By Abram Shalom Himelstein, editor-in-chief
We were in upstate New York, gathering for the first time since the pandemic, some of my oldest friends, (mostly) retired punk rock Jews. B’nai Punk Summer Camp we call it. We were all giddy with the joys of reunion, and the seeming return to BEING SOCIAL. We splurged on a midcentury modern chalet with both a swimming pool and a hot tub. We took tests and isolated before arrival and dreamed of breathing each other’s air.
There was a massive grocery shopping trip, with food allergies triangulated. And then: blessed arrival, with enthusiastic consent for hugs!
After a successful first day—Nature Walk Bingo, swimming, and hot tubbing—we were ready to celebrate, giving the kids smores to sweeten the joy of being together and in a Jewish environment. These are the small ways in which we entice (bribe) our children toward Jewishness.
To build a fire, then, for the smores. The problem: it had been a rainy season, so even the dry wood was relatively wet. There was talk about doing it inside, roasting marshmallows in the wood heater. “No,” I said, “the fire pit will be miserable and make for shared hardship and jokes.” “Outside,” I said.
So, we went to the rain-soaked firepit with driest pieces of wood we could find. Then we scoured the beautiful midcentury house for any stray pieces of paper. But all that was to be found were clean lines everywhere, furniture and bowls just so. And so, when we went to build the fire, after a few drawings from my notebook that I was ready to part with, we were low on starting fuel.
I went back to the house, hoping to find a newspaper that I had missed the first time I looked. Nothing. Six kids with their sights set on smores, time was short, and my eyes lit upon the Airbnb owner’s bookcase. It was wrong, but I was desperate. What wouldn’t they miss? I was annoyed at how solid the selection was—Howard Zinn, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Rebecca Solnit. Nothing I could bring myself to burn. But wait, a Dover Copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass? Hold on kids, be right there!
I’ve been lukewarm on Leaves of Grass ever since my dad first introduced me. I love the self-publishing part of the story, but the poetry has always seemed a little cliche. (I know he moved the form, but I can’t help that the one hundred and forty years of poetry he influenced have made his work seem less remarkable.) And Dover books— all the classics for $2.50 a piece. It was another approach to publishing, influenced less by the scarcity of trees, but instead more by the ideal of cheapness—suggesting that if only we could lower the price, everyone who wanted to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn could do so.
And so, I carried Leaves of Grass to the fire pit, with the heresy of burning books at the front of my mind. As well as some vague memory of Bill Clinton giving the book to Monica Lewinsky (and her gifting him Vox, by Nicholson Baker—not surprising that a future publisher’s strongest memory of the period are the books given as gifts). At the fire pit, the children were frustrated, as we tried in vain to get any wood to catch—unaware of my moral qualms about using a book as fuel.
So, there was nothing to do but go for it: tear and ball up a page—sometimes we would read aloud before crushing Whitman’s words:
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good help to you nevertheless
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you
Maybe he meant for this? Look for me in fire of your children’s desserts!
I imagined the end of Fahrenheit 451, when each person commits to memorizing a book in its entirety. And I hoped I would not be tasked with Whitman, even though karma would seem to point me that way. Burning books is a harrowing image, one that has stayed with me for the thirty-five years since reading Ray Bradbury.
But burn we did. The wood failing ever to catch, we cooked s’mores and banana boats (chocolate and marshmallows cooked inside a banana that has been slit down the side) exclusively on the fuel of Leaves of Grass. The desert was sweet; the experience full of children’s laughter and wet misery overcome.
At bedtime, when OG Simone (there are two kids named Simone among the six) complained of a stomach ache, we chalked it up to the sweets. Until she began to vomit.
One by one we were felled. Eleven of the thirteen were struck. In the chronicles of B’nai Punk, it went down as Whitman’s Revenge, though that might be too euphemistic for what transpired in the midcentury modern chalet.
And now, as we move through time, further from the terrible sickness, and as we bump into Whitman as we will, I am glad that the children (and probably most of the growns as well) will have replaced Clinton with s’mores and the faint whiff of Jewish culture.