I HELD MY FATHER'S COPY of Mein Kampf in my hand wondering if it should be kept, donated, or set on fire in the backyard. Will the day arrive when I actually attempt to hack my way through Hitler's turgid opus? Or did I want to see the look in the eye of the clerk at the donation center when she laid eyes on that noxious title? And what was Leo Greenland, husband, father, grandfather, successful advertising executive and supporter of multiple charities — some of them Jewish — doing with a copy of Mein Kampf anyway? Bequeath, retain or incinerate: Our choices.
We were breaking down Dad's library. He had passed away six months earlier at the grand age of 91, and my wife Susan and I had flown east to meet my brother Drew and close down the house on four wooded acres overlooking a quiet lake an hour north of New York City. To get there you drove past an overgrown cemetery with faded gravestones that dated from the early nineteenth century and turned right onto a rutted driveway on a small incline, flanked by two rows of tall pines. The house was not architecturally distinguished. A two-story, wood-sided, boxy structure, it was around forty years old. My parents had owned it for twenty-eight of those years. The bedrooms were easy to pack up; the living room and the den done on autopilot. It would have been easy enough to turn the kitchen into an emotional minefield. There were the beautifully painted dishes my mother, dead 20 years now, had shipped from Spain, the ones on which she prepared her signature fish with feta cheese and tomatoes. The carving knife my father had wielded so many Thanksgivings or the stained wood tray I had made in elementary school could easily have sent me tumbling down a Proustian rabbit hole, unable to emerge for hours. These objects resonated, but their emotional power paled compared to that exerted by the books.
In a house of readers, what, more than books, allows access to the inner lives of its occupants? When a person you love has recently died, there is often an urge to keep them close in some tangible way. And so with dusty fingers we work our way through libraries of the dead and read their biographies, see their lives written in volumes about other subjects.
Born in the South Bronx to uneducated immigrant parents, Leo Greenland was an autodidact (a word he never would have used) whose lifelong search for knowledge and meaning led him on a journey that began with countless books about marketing and took him from there to the Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle and Plato. In between, he accumulated a veritable Waldorf salad of titles. There were over a thousand. You can't keep them all.
Bequeath, retain or incinerate. I vowed to exorcise sentiment, sort rigorously, keep it moving.
The library is on the second floor of the house, overlooking the frozen lake. No other houses are visible, only ice and bare trees against white sky. The view is appropriately Chekhovian. When packing your dead father's books on a silent January day, gray winter light flooding in, thoughts of eternity wrestle with the anodyne task at hand. An old bestseller easily drops into the donation pile, but then I am brought up short by a high school yearbook from 1938 and...read more