22nd Elul The Selichot of Library Books

22 The Selichot of Library Books


I grew up in a poor family; we owned few possessions of note beyond our books. Every wall was covered with them, the accumulation of dusty tomes being a life’s long work. It had been my father’s dream to run a second-hand bookshop. I’m not sure it would have been a commercial success. And once my mother understood that he only planned to sell her books, she quashed the idea, by telling him that he should rather start with his own.


Yet the books we owned did not quench our thirst for reading, and we spent many happy hours in the public library, choosing new delights to take home and devour. Sometimes this would work well, and even for several months we would visit the library metronomically every two or three weeks to bring back our borrowed books and find some new ones. But we were not exactly great about returning books on time, and always eventually, we would end up in a terrible pickle.


First would come the reminder letter – I remember they were green - for which the postage was payable. And perhaps even a second one would drop on our doormat. Then the fines for late returns would begin, swiftly mounting up as each day passed. The shame of it! But even so, despite their daily accumulation, it was still all too easy to procrastinate rather than face up to the problem, which only became worse and worse through our neglect.


Eventually, wracked with guilt, threatened by impending financial doom, or simply desperate for something new to read, we would round up our books from wherever they had fallen, perhaps behind the sofa or under the bed, and make the effort take them back to the library. Generally - but not always - the librarians would take pity on us and forgive us at least part of the fines. You had to know which one to approach, and how to look suitably humble and repentant, even as a known miscreant and repeat offender.


Looking back - it was a ritual of Selichot – more frequent than Yom Kippur – especially when a book had become lost. Finding the courage to admit that the book that one had mislaid, and hence earnestly renewed the maximum number of times, was in fact irredeemably lost, was the biggest source of shame. It took no small effort and a lot of bravery to confess, a red-face to accompany the maximum fine.


My university have what I consider the wisest of rules: no student may graduate with outstanding library fines. After my final undergraduate exams, I took a long and rather expensive walk of shame around the city of Cambridge, taking in no fewer than eight different libraries. The relief was worth every penny, and there were thousands of them.


The day after Yom Kippur is like this. Again, we have a clean slate, free of sin. It is time to go back into the world and make a fresh start; to look around the library and choose some fresh books to borrow.


Like many people, these days I mostly buy and borrow my books online. They require less dusting and take up much less space. When kindle downloads and the like expire at midnight, they simply disappear. While it’s doubtless a simpler, cleaner and more equitable system, and probably saves me a lot of money, I do miss the Selichot of our library books of old.


Rabbi Nathan Alfred LBC 2008 Vilnius and Jerusalem