books - Tomer Appelbaum - June 27 2011
The book giveaway in Jerusalem’s Givat Ram yesterday. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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All of the novels by Herman Melville in a single volume - that's something that would make any bookshelf proud. But Moby Dick himself weighed a little less than this book: We're talking about 1,695 pages in English, weighing at least three kilograms and about 10 centimeters thick. Where will one find room for all that Melville, and who will read it all?

This and other such dilemmas faced the hundreds of individuals who yesterday thronged to the National Library in Jerusalem for its annual give-away event, with around 30,000 books being offered to the culture vultures.

In the past, the library tried to sell its surplus books, but the takings were meager and the headache was big. Yesterday, the books were packed in cartons and offered free of charge to those who turned up from all around the country.

What could I do about Melville? He was making it difficult to hold a notebook and jot down quotes from Rachel Tsuker, who had come all the way from Tel Aviv to see what she could find.

"I woke at 5 A.M. and had to take a blood pressure pill because of this," she said. "We were already here at 7.30 A.M."

The give-away started only at 10, and Tsuker took up a strategic position alongside one of the tables. Hundreds of others were standing around when the cartons came out. The first few minutes were bitterly disappointing: Most of the books were in Russian, with a small number in English, too. And then the quick and cruel natural selection began.

Tsuker and the lucky few around the tables sifted through the offerings first; unwanted books were passed from hand to hand and the unluckiest books ended up in a pile on the floor behind the fifth row of the people who had lined up. Instead of being snapped up, books like "Africa - The Politics of Unity and South-East Asia - Issues" remained lying there.

More cartons were brought out every few minutes and the library official in charge of the operation then took a tactical decision: no more tables. They were becoming too crowded. The cartons were simply placed in the courtyard outside.

The image of the people standing quietly at the tables and sifting through the books was soon transformed into one of people tearing off the plastic wrapping that had been stretched over the cartons and grabbing anything and everything they could get their hands on. And every time a carton containing Hebrew books was brought out, its contents were grabbed within seconds. Take first and think afterward - that was the modus operandi.

And how did Tsuker do? "A book on yoga for the husband of a friend of my daughter, maps of Alaska and Wisconsin that I can give to you if you are traveling there, and a photography book on Anvers, which I think is in Belgium," she says. "Ah, and this too: 'The Economy of China.' Well, I don't need this one."

And thus China and its economy are tossed back into the carton.

The crowd is a mixed one - soldiers in uniform, students, ultra-Orthodox, hill-top youth alongside veteran academics, and elderly Russian and Yiddish speakers looking for literary gems.

Prof. Shlomo Giora Shoham, one of the world's leading criminologists and an Israel Prize laureate, showed up with a big sack and an assistant. "We are look primarily for books about the history of India, for a new book that Shoham is planning on the growth of monotheism," the assistant explains. "Since Gutenberg is dead and everyone is going digital, we're the last of the Mohicans," Shoham adds and continues to fill his sack.

So what the hell do I do with Melville? My arm is aching already. It's mine. I found it. But what are the chances of me ever reading it? I couldn't even get through "Moby Dick" in Hebrew. And then I bump into a friend, with a trolley no less, and room on her bookshelves, too, I assume. She gets Melville.

Some 18,000 books were given away yesterday - just 4,000 in Hebrew. Another 13,000 will be offered during the next two days, but none of them are in Hebrew.