By the Book / ARTetc.

Nir Baram
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Nir Baram

Jerusalem, 1994

Buying books during book week. Credit: Alon Ron

We scurry from one stall to the next. Kubersky, lurching forward, huffing and coughing, snakes his way into a group of noisy youngsters, shouting to me to stay close by. The colors on the covers of the books stacked up in front of us like precious stones are reflected in the eyes of the weary sellers. In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1; The Tin Drum; Maxim Gorky; Ferenc Molnars The Paul Street Boys; Fests Hitler (Kubersky is an avid reader of books about Nazi Germany). All that separates us from these wonderful volumes is a bit of daring, a dash of courage, until the moment we become their owners.

Everything went well until The Master and Margarita. Neither of us really wanted the book. But there it was at the front of the booth, beckoning us. Suddenly Kubersky said he wanted a copy for B.: He likes funny things like that. I stood there, waiting for him to stuff it into his bag. And then two things happened, almost simultaneously. A book was indeed stuffed into the bag, but then strong fingers grabbed my wrist tightly. Kubersky stood there, staring into space, then calmly picked up Meir Shalevs Esau and looked through it. At that moment even I was ready to swear he was innocent. The hand dragged me between the booths, and I was the subject of dark, contemptuous looks all around. Punk! one woman shouted.

From the corner of my eye I saw Kuberskys black wool coat disappear into the crowd.

Rabin Square, 1998

Kubersky, B. and I are on our way to Tel Aviv. I am going to sign copies of my first novel. For Jerusalemites like us, most trips to Tel Aviv are humiliating: We are laughed at on the beach, denied entry to every famous raunchy club and ultimately every campaign to conquer Tel Aviv ends with us buying posters in Dizengoff Center. On the way, as usual, Kubersky asks B. about the books hes reading. B., aware of the trap, plans his strategy well this time: Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead! he declares in a victorious tone of voice.
A real classic for political functionaries, Kubersky mutters.

I report to the stall along with Kubersky and B. Our plan is simple: To avoid more Tel Aviv humiliation, my two buddies will flank me and charm the crowd. Its a delightful book about love, Kubersky tells the first person who approaches us.

The guy replies that he doesnt read Israeli literature. In every Hebrew Book Week you meet at least 10 characters like this. They also always insist on making their preference known while standing next to a booth with original Hebrew literature.

Me, too! Kubersky jumps. Deathly boring every kid of 22 publishes some diary and calls it a novel.

B. and I beat a retreat and draw up a new plan. B. has learned how to imitate the publisher. Youre not selling enough! he suddenly blurts out in a raspy voice. Before I leave, the publisher whispers to me, Baram, you can come back, but alone.
In the car Kubersky badmouths Israeli literature and B. screams merrily: Baram, that detective novel published by Keter is selling more!

By the way, have you read DeLillos Underworld? Kubersky asks.

How did I know hed swiped it? The same idea had gone through my mind. Weve always been drawn to the same book jackets.

Greed

In the end he possessed so many volumes ... that his fairly substantial living room was filled with the kind of stacks you see in public libraries. His bathroom had books on every wall, except where the shower was, and they only avoided being ruined because he had given up hot showers to prevent any steam.

Carlos Maria Dominguez, The House of Paper (translated by Nick Caistor)

We always talked about reading, Kubersky and me, and used books about the love of reading (Proust, for example) to justify our deeds back in those years. Naturally it was convenient for us to cling to the illusion that this was our only motive. However, when I read Carlos Maria Dominguezs The House of Paper, which is about a person whose greed for books leads to madness I understood that our desire to read was outweighed by our covetousness.

I remembered the day on which Kubersky first saw the two volumes of the Hebrew edition of Shirers The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on the bookshelf in my house. His eyes burned with desire. He didnt touch them, didnt leaf through them, as though understanding that if he were to do that (during those brief minutes when you look through a book, even in a store, you are effectively its owner) and then return the book to the shelf the loss would be more concrete. He had read other recent books on the Third Reich, but at that moment he felt that those two faded volumes absolutely had to be owned by him, become part of his library.

Dominguez writes about this desire in The House of Paper. What does it involve? Its a desire that searches for limits, but in order to find them you must radicalize your actions. Indeed, the gaze Kubersky fixed on those two old books made it clear to us both that our friendship did not posit such a limit: In an instant, his close friend became an alien body that constituted a barrier between him and the realization of his desire.

Suddenly I understood why, when we approached the stalls during Hebrew Book Week, a tense, sometimes gloomy silence prevailed between us. During that event, like when you are in the university library, desire provokes you to the extreme: Dozens of books you covet are there in front of you. But at the same time, its clear to you that the desire is doomed to remain unfulfilled, that clear boundaries also exist: None of us will brandish a pistol and rob the booth of Carmel Publishing House. Because every visit to Hebrew Book Week entailed mourning for the books we had lost, some of which we might never see again, the booths we really liked were those which did not have even one book that we wanted. The fever that seized us abated there; we found tranquillity.

There were years in which we preferred to stifle this desire by going into denial about Hebrew Book Week. Every day we decided halfheartedly and without setting a specific time, that this evening we would visit the event. But something always came up, and suddenly, oops, the week was over.

Hayarkon Park, 2006

Actually, I muse, signing books at a stall is a terrific solution. You have an excuse not to wander around the fair like a man obsessed, and for most of the evening the desire remains confined to this one place.

Imagine if you had published a book with Carmel, Kubersky says, this time from the other side of the counter. We could have obtained all their books once and for all.
Since 1998 weve used the term obtain. Obtaining is not exactly buying and not exactly borrowing, also not stealing: Obtaining is obtaining.

Kubersky quickly abandons me in order to cruise around. About an hour later hes back, relaxed and good-hearted. The special deals here are really something...

What books did you obtain?

Truth is, I dont remember but a lot! Kubersky steps back, a provocative look on his face. He knows the books I will imagine that he obtained here this evening will always be rarer than the ones he actually has.

Uneasily, I follow him with my eyes. He disappears between giant balloons, the colorful advertisements for the cellular companies, the food booths, the childrens sites: Hebrew Book Week in Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv is a carnival of goods and stalls, the books blending in with the other items on sale. People put a napkin encasing a hotdog in a bun on a book and riffle the pages of other books with greasy fingers. The commercialized setting, which emphasizes the materiality of the items all around, has affected the books, too, has sloughed off their high-brow cultural apartness.

The protagonist of Dominguezs novel eventually turns the books he accumulated into bricks and builds a house with them: a Borges window, a Kafka-supported pillar and so forth. And in Hayarkon Park its easy to imagine people ripping pages out of a book in order to wipe the ketchup off their hands. A young woman picks up one of mine.

Talk about it, she barks.

Its about a guy who can see dreams ... But really its very complicated, maybe its not for you.

She leaves, only to return a few minutes later with her boyfriend, who yells at me in front of everyone. I apologize in a feeble voice and look around for Kubersky. I want to grab hold of him, poke around in his bags; together we will reminisce, restore to books the grandeur they possessed in our world. Suddenly I spot him, standing under a tree, carrying his bags, watching the goings-on with a disparaging look, as though scolding me: I told you that you didnt need all this wasnt it nicer before, when it was the two of us against everyone?

Hebrew Book Week, 2010

This year I think I have come up with the best solution for dealing with the tribulations of Hebrew Book Week: I will be in a place where the desire seems to be fulfilled: I will sign my new novel at the stall of a publisher that has a catalog going back 70 years, whose warehouse I have passed at least twice a week in recent years, where I obtained book after book. And so, instead of coping with lost books, I will look around with satisfaction and declare: I have all this in my library! And when Kubersky comes to visit, he will pay for his behavior in 2006 and his betrayal in 1998.

Kubersky, ole pal, Ill whisper to the bastard, what you see here in the booth are the publishers new books. But deep in the warehouse oh, the warehouse! such rare books are hidden that those who witnessed the fact that they ever existed are long dead. Those books are so old that no one in the publishing house remembers any longer that they are there, so no one is sorry when they are moved to a different location, if you take my meaning ... And now, ole buddy, choose a book from the stalls here, choose two, and theyre yours.

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