More Than Just a Book to Read

Natalie and I both read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird this summer after going to a screening of a restored film print at the Billy Wilder Theater at the UCLA Hammer Museum.

While we were reading the novel, we happened upon a wonderful exhibit at Loyola Marymount University’s Hannon Library titled the “Saraval Collection: Reproductions of Rare Hebrew Manuscripts Spanning Seven Centuries.”  (SEE NOTE BELOW ABOUT SARAVAL COLLECTION)

The text by Monika Jaremków included this interesting observation:

“More Than Just a Book to Read”:

“Books are not limited to literary and scholarly texts; they are real objects created throughout the ages, with the use of different materials, by people of different cultures and communities.  Old books—as if by accident and not by intent—reveal the stories of their production and binding as well as their scribes and owners.  Notes written in their margins also tell us about subsequent users who carefully read the text.”

It made me think of the tabs I stick into books to mark sections I want to re-read, or talk about with William or Natalie, or simply remember forever. While reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I found Scout’s frustrated observations about her “school” experience both funny and perceptive.  Here’s an excerpt I marked while reading:

“The remainder of my schooldays were no more auspicious than the first.  Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics.  What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techniques.  I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything—at least, what one didn’t know the other did.  Furthermore, I couldn’t help noticing that my father had served for years in the state legislature, elected each time without opposition, innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship.  Jem, educated on a half-Decimal half-Duncecap basis, seemed to function effectively alone or in a group, but Jem was a poor example: no tutorial system devised by man could have stopped him from getting at books.  As for me, I knew nothing except what I gathered from Time magazine and reading everything I could lay hands on at home, but as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something.  Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.”

Natalie has kept a reading journal for a few years, in which she jots down her response to books she’s read.  Last year, in her ninth grade humanities class, she learned how to annotate.  At first, she found it a burdensome distraction.  Then, she began to see how it made her notice things she might not have otherwise.  It makes her feel like a detective, uncovering details and subtle connections.

Here’s a note she jotted down after reading To Kill a Mockingbird:  Perceptive through their innocence, Scout and her brother Jem begin to question the hate and injustice that plague their community.  To Kill a Mockingbird takes one on a journey, a journey that changes Scout’s life, and the lives of everybody who reads it.   I will never forget it.

Note on Saraval Collection:  The Leon Vita Saraval (1771-1851) Collection was housed, until World War II, in the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau (Wroclaw), Poland. In 1938, the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary kept in its holdings 400 manuscripts and 30,000 volumes of prints. After the Reichskristallnacht, the library collection was confiscated by Gestapo and transferred to various locations, including Prague, where the Nazis were preparing a museum of a “vanished Jewish race.” It was stored in a vault in the National Library at the Clementinum, where it gathered dust for four decades. The discovery of the manuscripts in the mid-1980s was heralded as a major international find. The collection was returned from Prague to Wroclaw in December 2004. It consists of 34 Hebrew manuscripts and five incunabula (in six volumes) that formed probably the most valuable part of the Saraval Collection. They span seven centuries, the oldest having been finished in 1284-85, the most recent one in 1833. They originated in various parts of Europe, North Africa and Middle East.

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