From the Great Plains to the Bosporus: How Two Private Libraries Converged

June, 2011

I’m renting an apartment in Istanbul now for a few weeks while studying Turkish. The man who owns it has gone to New York to teach at Columbia over the summer. I met him briefly twice, once to have a look at the place (desk facing window, view of the Bosporus and the slopes on the opposite shore, no oven, no television or radio), and another time to get the key. He’s an older man and compact. I hit my head on the door leading to the balcony the first time I visited, which clearly surprised him.

The first week or so in the place I spent a lot of time looking out the window or browsing the books on the shelves. Looking at people’s books is a kind of voyeurism that will soon be rendered obsolete, along with books themselves. I will be among those who mourn the passing of bookshelves, bookends, bookstores, and other compound words beginning with “book,” but more than anything I will mourn the loss of private libraries that allow us to guess at the hidden depths of a person by perusing their bookshelves.

I have noticed that the man who lives here has uncannily similar reading habits to my own. His collection is an odd assortment of books on science, music and history, famous works of philosophy and political theory, and several shelves of literature. Among the many books that he and I both own are two copies of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (it seems one is never enough), a vast array of Central Europeans (Leibniz, Goethe, Schiller, Brecht, Kafka, Freud), several novels by the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, and the physicist Richard Feynman’s QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Most of the books are in Turkish and English, with a few in German, Italian, and other languages.

There is not a room in the apartment without shelves, and no shelf without books. In an old wooden cabinet with beveled glass doors, the books are doubled up in two rows on each shelf. They appear to be partially organized by genre, but the organization is inconsistent and even in places haphazard; a book on the renaissance sits cover-to-cover with one of the same size on thermodynamics, a dictionary of science next to a Turkish-Ottoman dictionary, Sartre leans against Whitman, The Psychology of Consciousness next to The Gulag Archipelago. In its semi-chaos it resembles my library all the more, wherein I rely on my sense of relationships between books and an otherwise unspectacular memory to guide my search for a needed volume.

The most uncanny overlap in our tastes is manifest in the presence of tens of dictionaries and language books, including, among others, Ottoman, Spanish, German, English, Turkish, Italian, and Russian. During one recent perusal, I paused before a Turkish-Hungarian dictionary and a copy of Teach Yourself Hungarian. Although we clearly also share other linguistic interests, it is rare to find someone else who has studied Hungarian, which is notoriously strange, difficult, and spoken by a relatively small number of people. With a rush of nostalgia I paged through the grammatical explanations and sample texts illustrating vowel harmony, definite and indefinite articles and verbs, and the initially mind-boggling surfeit of suffixes. On another shelf in a small lidless box I spotted a coin, 100 Hungarian forints, and nearby a 200-forint note, suggesting that the reader had been—as I was some years ago—intent on going all the way.

There are also some unframed photographs; of him as a boy, of his parents, of his own son at various ages, including graduation from college. Were it not for the color—or lack thereof—and quality of the prints and the handwritten dates on the backs of the photographs, it would be difficult to unravel the small tangle of generations, and to mistake, for example, the man for his son, or his father for him.

I learned a little more about the man with the library like mine one evening when I invited a professor from Boğazici University over for dinner. This professor has known the man who lives in my apartment for many years. He told me the man was born into an Arab family from Urfa (Şanlıurfa), in southeastern Anatolia near the border with Syria. The next morning when I woke up, my eyes caught an “Urfa” on the bookshelves among the titles by the bed. It was a book of poetry in Turkish about Urfa, including several poems commemorating April 11, the day when, in 1920, armed locals drove out the French well in advance of the declaration of the new Turkish Republic three years later.

I looked for photographs and descriptions of Urfa, now a city of nearly half a million inhabitants and where for the past few weeks refugees from Syria have been fleeing into Turkey to escape the violence and political turmoil in their own country. Situated on a flat and expansive plain, Urfa is known for its scorching hot summers and relatively conservative politics and social mores. Its size and multi-ethnic population render it profoundly unlike where I grew up in Mitchell, South Dakota. Nonetheless, in contemplating the sheer broadness of the horizon, the summer heat, the isolation, the fat carp that course the waters, the swaddled politics—I felt I was beginning to understand how it came to be that my own library converged so uncannily with his, even though we grew up a generation, a hemisphere, a language, a gender and a religion apart.

Perhaps he, like me, has no television because he wants to recover some of the silence that seems to permeate flat places; or is passionate about languages because he learned at a young age how to fill a dead silence with living sounds—imitating, altering, even smothering them with the weight of obsession. Perhaps he is drawn to the codification of knowledge in dictionaries and encyclopedias (not just of languages, but also of literature, medicine, philosophy, psychology…) because he feels that he is forever learning the world from scratch and will never be fully caught up.

If so, our libraries are the matter and anti-matter, the worldly manifestation of two souls running away while looking back. Little wonder we should run into each other thus.

About the author

Holly Case teaches history at Cornell University. Her first book, Between States: The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea during World War II, was…

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Issue 13 · September 2011

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