A Founding Father’s Books Turn Up
– NY Times, Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Dear Dr. L.,
I feel so many opportunities in the course of life these days to think of my teachers from the old school. You have weathered the years well. Not only do you live in my memory, and in my imagination, but what you taught me by virtue of standards and models alone has enriched my life and I am sure account for the measure by which I parse the world in my own little way, sometimes to my frustration for what you planted for me has grown slowly or not at all in other places, ways, people (heaven forbid that I am judging but – I am).
Recently there was a conversation on one of our list-servs (a place where people express opinions without thinking) in which one of the older colleagues implied that the newer colleagues have not the tools as we were encouraged to develop in the former days when we consulted the books in your province – the library. The proof is of course in the product – do we write better, do we think better, are the standards advancing – of course they are not.
Often I feel how I would like to inform you of this or that – something I have read or something discovered that you would appreciate – in the world to come you are no doubt preoccupied with greater pursuits, sitting with texts, taking sunshine with the great Rabbis, pouring over the manuscripts you couldn’t identify in life but suspected were of the hand of this scribe, that scribe, sitting with the Holy One in the great yeshivahs on high learning the mystery texts that disappeared in life and are now in the great libraries of the next world, the genizah on high — yours is a blessed existence I am sure.
I read something in the newspaper that delighted me and I am sure would have delighted you, and if it’s not available there, I want to share with the one person who I know would chuckle and I can see that smile curling the corners of your mouth hesitating toward the peak where you were thinking this is funny but never daring to expose your feelings in so blatant a way (no doubt emotional residue from your pause in England on your escape route from the Nazis to the rare books collection at the College where you tutored me, old school).
Dr. – in the town where I live they recently identified 74 books that belonged to the library of one of our early Presidents who of all the Presidents of our youthful country was the most bibliophilic. I just had to tell you. They have had these texts in their collection since 1880 [!?].
One of the founders of the university in my town — a grandfather of the celebrated poet, less than friendly to our people, Thomas Stearns (who became English and snooty) and whose grandfather seems to have been a colleague at Harvard of the donor of President Jefferson’s books (our third President, Thomas Jefferson) — that grandfather and founder of the university in my town received a certain part of President Jefferson’s retirement collection of books. Thomas Stearns’ grandfather donated them to the university in our town around 1880.
To identify those books must seem to you a rather simple pursuit when I consider that you were the curator of ancient books identifying for our modest College manuscripts from several millennia by location and date and sometimes even by scribe.
These books of President Jefferson have been in the collection in the library of my town since 1880 and – this is the part I know you would appreciate – the President labeled his books with his initials “TJ.” Isn’t that wonderful? In 2011 the scholarly resources of the university library identified the books as belonging to President Thomas Jefferson and everywhere in my town they were celebrating this remarkable find [lost-and-find].
My beloved teacher, I just had to share this with you. I find myself in awe at the world as it has formed and the one whose image you placed in my mind, in the distance between the two I fill with memories of your demonstrated excellence and the others of your time and depth. We are so diminished. You planted us deep with a lofty reach.
I knew you would enjoy this story and if I could peek into the other world for just a moment, I would witness again the corners of your mouth beginning that managed rise north-wards, not quite a smile but you and I know how funny life is.
I often wear red socks and my trousers too short in your honor. Your student always,
James Stone Goodman