The following is a redacted version of Joseph Skibell’s original essay for Jewish Book Council. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople, exploring the realm of the imaginary. You can read the full version of the essay here.
Throughout the ages — and we can pat ourselves on the back as a species for this — we’ve done a fairly good job of building real libraries for real books (although, let’s be honest, from Alexandria to Sarajevo, we’ve also done a pretty good job of burning them to the ground). Nobody, however, has given much thought about where to house all the imaginary books, and perhaps it’s time we did, because the world is full of imaginary books.
Yesterday, the author copies of my new book, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things, arrived. Thanks to an agreement my agent made with my publisher, whenever I publish a book, I receive twenty copies in the mail. This should be a thrilling moment, opening the box and finding 20 spanking brand-new copies of your book there, and it actually is. It is a thrilling moment — in bulk, en masse, 20-strong, the book, imaginary up until that point, now insists upon its reality. But the truth is, after that first thrilling moment, as the book transitions from its glorious imaginary state into a flawed realness, there’s a kind of let down. It’s just a book, you realize, like any other book, like all the other books in the world, so many of which you don’t even notice or know about or which you might walk past in a bookshop or pick up and put down, never to think about again.
Is it any wonder I prefer imaginary books?
My mother had such a book, and in truth, that’s the real reason I’d like to build this library. My mother died when she was only 58. This year, I’ll be twice as old as I was when she died, which means that, so far, I’ve spent half my life as her son and half of it as her orphan. My mother’s book had a title, and she’d even constructed a pseudonym for herself. Her maiden name was Shirlene Lezan and the book, written by Sylvia Leland, was called Slice It Thin.
I’ve never read it, of course — I have no idea where to find a copy — but I recall my mother explaining its title to me. When you go into a butcher shop, she said, you ask the man behind the counter to “slice it thin,” to give you the thinnest possible cut so that you don’t have to chew through the fat. It was a metaphor, she said, for a life lived lean, for a life with no fat, no gristle, with nothing left over.
Children, I’m told, often unconsciously live out the unlived lives of their parents, the fat or the gristle their parents, in Sylvia Leland’s resonant metaphor, have pushed to the side of their plate. I sometimes wonder if Sylvia Leland had actually published Slice it Thin, whether my books, real to a fault, might not have wound up in the Library of Imaginary Books instead.
In any case, most afternoons, that’s where you’ll find me, in the Library of Imaginary Books (built with the generous contributions of readers like you). Stroll past the theology section, past the illuminated manuscript of the Book of Raziel in its lighted display case, past the Waldo Salt Archive of Imaginary Screenplays. Walk into the fiction section. I’ll be near the Ls, reading Slice it Thin by Sylvia Leland. I’ve read the book so many times now I practically know it by heart. In fact, I usually just open it at random and read for thirty minutes or so, enjoying my mother’s dry wit, her acerbic observations, her sly turns of phrase. Marveling at the comedic brilliance of its scenes, I can almost hear her deep masculine-sounding voice in my inner ear as I read. I wish more people knew about Slice It Thin, but — please don’t tell anyone — when I’m done, I always hide the library’s one and only copy behind a stack of other books, so I know it’s always there.
Joseph Skibell is the author of three critically-acclaimed novels, A Blessing on the Moon, The English Disease, and A Curable Romantic; a collection of true stories, My Father’s Guitar & Other Imaginary Things; and a forthcoming study of the Talmudic tales, Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud.
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Joseph Skibell is the critically acclaimed author of A Blessing on the Moon and A Curable Romantic, choice award of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. As director of the Ellmann Lectures at Emory University, he played guitar and sang onstage with Margaret Atwood and Paul Simon. A professor at Emory, he is a Senior Fellow at the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry.