The fol­low­ing is a redact­ed ver­sion of Joseph Ski­bells 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.

Read the full ver­sion of this essay here.

Relat­ed Content:

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.