AMHERST -- There are few better places to get lost than in the pages of a book. Crack open the spine and whole worlds spill out. Illustrations rivet the eye and direct the imagination. For some, reading can be an almost sacred activity, the book a talismhttp://cache.boston.com/bonzai-fba-internal/File-Based_Image_Resource/picker.png
If you love books, and you occasionally get up out of your armchair to travel beyond the world of ink and paper, set out to the leafy campus of Hampshire College, where two sites that celebrate books have opened to the public in recent years. The National Yiddish Book Center and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, along with the Massachusetts Center for the Book, which promotes literacy, make up the "cultural village" at Hampshire, a collection of independently run organizations within the college grounds.
The Pioneer Valley long has been a haven for the bookish. It's an educational center, the home of Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, and Mount Holyoke colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In its heyday, Holyoke, known as the Paper City, manufactured reams of the stuff. This pastoral and literate nook of Massachusetts, midway between academic Boston and publishing powerhouse New York, has been a gathering place for purveyors of the book arts.
Printmakers and illustrators such as Barry Moser and the late Leonard Baskin put down roots here. Traditional bookbinders and letterpress printers are still at work in Hadley, making limited-edition volumes. With all that ink, leather, and paper here, museums and book centers were bound to blossom eventually.
The first was the National Yiddish Book Center, a destination for non-Jews as well as Jews, and where 99 percent of the visitors do not speak Yiddish. If you love a good story, if you want to hold in your hand or even purchase a book that not only contains a good story in its pages but also in itself is a story, having been passed from hand to hand over decades of use, if you want to steep yourself in the wit and pathos of a culture and language that crosses national boundaries, come here.
The center set up shop at Hampshire in 1996, but it has been around for almost 25 years. Founder Aaron Lansky was a fresh-faced youth who took a detour from graduate school when he realized that across the country, Yiddish books were being thrown away as fewer and fewer people spoke the language. He set out on a mission to collect them. Little did he know what he was in for: Thousands of books came in, and hundreds of aging Yiddish speakers buttonholed Lansky to tell him the story of each volume they gave him.
"For book lovers, these are books they're not making anymore," says Nancy Sherman, executive vice president of the center. "Books in the libraries and on the shelves of people who have passed on, like the immigrant populations of New York. These were the books people owned and cherished."
Today, nearly 100,000 books are in the stacks at the center on any given day, available for sale. Another million sit in a warehouse in Holyoke, waiting to be rotated in. There's a guided tour every Sunday at noon, with stories about some of the great Yiddish authors like Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Moykher-Sforin.
The books pour in: medical books, cookbooks, children's books, and books of sheet music. Every summer, the center hires interns to sort through the trove that's come in the previous year. In the morning, they learn Yiddish. (Yiddish arose about 1100 out of a blend of German dialects in the ghettos of Central Europe. It borrowed from Hebrew, Slavic and Romance languages, and English. Before the Holocaust, about 11 million people spoke Yiddish.) In the afternoon, the interns blow the dust off the hardbacks and see what's inside.
This summer, "we found an Israeli pre-state publication in Yiddish," reports Sarah Litvin, an Oberlin College student from Newton. "No scholars had ever heard of it. An archivist at Stanford University told us, 'I've never heard of it.' If it's not a unique item, then something's wrong."
The center has a theater, and throughout the day screens excerpts from Yiddish films, and holds concerts and lectures in the evenings and on weekends. There's a store with English and Yiddish books (the center has teamed with Yale University Press on a translation project), and exhibits that include the last Yiddish linotype from the Jewish Daily Forward, a national newspaper in English and Yiddish.
Sherman estimates there are about 12,000 Yiddish titles in print. Since the center moved into the Hampshire site, it has used grants from filmmaker Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation to digitize each title. These copies, on acid-free paper, will last 500 years, long after the books on the repository's floor have crumbled to dust. Not a single Yiddish speaker may be around by then, but these books, testaments to the cultures, morals, and struggles of those who spoke the language, will remain.
The Eric Carle Museum is not just for children. It opened in November 2002, after Carle, a prolific and world-renowned children's book illustrator who may be best known for "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," traveled to Japan and saw museums of picture book art. Nothing like that existed in the United States.
The museum's art studio clamors with children and adults, armed with bright tissue paper, paint, and glue sticks, making illustrations. In the library, children gather to hear some of their favorite titles read aloud.
The 40,000-square-foot museum also houses a theater and galleries, including a large space devoted to the work of Carle, who illustrates his books with brilliantly colored collages.
The museum, however, is far more than a tribute to Carle, who lives in the area. There have been exhibits of the work of Dr. Seuss (n Theodor Geisel, another Pioneer Valley native) and William Steig, and of Russian children's book illustration dating back a century. Up through Nov. 7 is "Dancing Line and Merry Color: The Worlds of Margot and Kaethe Zemach."
Margot Zemach illustrated nearly 50 books before her death in 1989, including many by Isaac Bashevis Singer (for some timely counterprogramming, see a small show of her Singer pen-and-ink illustrations at the National Yiddish Book Center). Zemach's daughter Kaethe has taken up the pen; her style, evidenced in books like "The Question Song," is bolder than that of her detail-oriented mother.
Children's book illustration is a rare kind of art. It brings stories vividly to lifewhile helping teach youngsters to read. It also makes imprints that age into treasured memories. The Eric Carle Museum gives adults a place to step back into those memories, and children a place to start.
Cate McQuaid is a freelance writer who lives in Haverhill.