The Library

In 1993, a would-be lawyer named John Huebl serendipitously acquired a phenomenal collection of books. Fifteen years later, as he recalls the joy those volumes brought him, Huebl uncovers the story of the man who once owned them

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Berkowitz as a boy; a raised seal on the pages of his books identified them as from the “Library of Howard Arnold Berkowitz.”

 

Howard Arnold Berkowitz lived most of the last 17 years of his life in a high-rise studio apartment that afforded views of Chicago’s movie-set skyline, of the grid of streets below that stretch as far as the eye can see, and of vast, formidable Lake Michigan. He loved literature and philosophy, theatre and classical music, and his panoramic views of the city and the lake. He died from complications of AIDS, at 48, on Christmas Eve 1992.

His apartment complex, known as McClurg Court, includes elliptical twin glass towers that stand at right angles to each other in Streeterville between Ohio and Ontario streets. Howard’s apartment was situated on the 17th floor and at the southeastern curve of the northwestern tower. Two months before his death, I moved into the same tower, where I occupied a studio apartment facing north on the 22nd floor. If our days at McClurg overlapped, it was only briefly before Howard relocated to a hospice somewhere on the North Shore.

I imagine that for Howard, the fall of 1992 must have been hell, or something like it. When I think of his plight during those final months, I recall the symptoms described in Vikram Seth’s poem “Soon”: “My throat cased in white spawn / These hands that shake and waste.” In contrast to Howard, I myself could not have asked for better physical health during the fall of 1992: I was 28 years old and had spent the preceding summer teaching tennis in and around Chicago. With the tennis season behind me, I took my autumn exercise via six-mile runs along the lakeshore and kilometer swims in a sports-club pool. My enviable health, however, was strictly from the neck down. Mentally, I was fighting a battle of my own, my meager defenses being the gooseneck lamps that I kept buying—ultimately 11 altogether—to combat the darkness that descended upon the city, and upon my spirit, a little earlier each day.

Just as Howard was losing his battle against AIDS, I was losing my battle against what the writer William Styron called the “darkness visible.” In mid-November 1992, halfway through my first semester at Northwestern University School of Law, I resigned my position in the class. Exiled from the law school, and having few other social contacts in the city, I was largely confined to the loneliness of my McClurg studio, from which I sought escape via long walks either along the shore of Lake Michigan or up and down the Magnificent Mile. As Christmas approached, the city seemed locked in the sort of perpetual darkness that, as a child, I had imagined as descending in Icelandic winters. The holiday lights of Michigan Avenue did little to elevate my mood. On or about Christmas Eve, the day Howard died, I boarded a train in Union Station bound for Detroit, where I would spend the holiday with my family.

With the new year, I returned to my white box in the Chicago sky. I regained my job as a tennis instructor and began daily commuting crosstown between McClurg and the East Bank Club on an old Schwinn bicycle, a wool hat pulled low over my ears and my hands in leather gloves. I was taking life one day—indeed, one hour—at a time, trying to block out the previous year and to focus instead upon my current task: to strike a tennis ball so that it would travel with moderate speed, spin, and depth, and thus be fun and easy for the client to return. Then came the sunny, cold January afternoon, during this time of living obsessively in the present, when I walked my bike into McClurg and found the lobby momentarily transformed by the legacy of the late Howard Arnold Berkowitz: The entire floor, from glass entryway to the elevators, was covered with shopping bags full of books. Walking among them were two young men who had removed the books from Howard’s apartment and transported them to ground level. A woman, fashionably dressed in trench coat and heels, noticed my interest and told me that I was welcome to keep any of the books that I wanted.

Immediately as I began looking through the bags, I understood that I had stumbled upon something extraordinary. Almost all of the books were hardcover, and many of the works, whether bound in single or multiple volumes, were sheathed in protective casings. Virtually without exception, they were classics in mint condition, and some were reprints of first editions. Reaching at random as if for gifts from a grab bag, I would find literature by the likes of Shakespeare, Aristotle, Thoreau, Emerson, James, Proust, and Nabokov; psychological studies by Freud and Jung; collected stories of Eudora Welty and Isaac Bashevis Singer; biographies of Woolf and Dickens; important reference books, such as the eight-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy; and histories, such as Edward Gibbon’s eight-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Winston Churchill’s six-volume The Second World War.  It was a literary pot of gold at the center of the nuclear crater that was my life.

“See any you like?” the woman asked me. She told me that friends and family had taken some of the books, but many were left over. I also recall that she had found an institution that was willing to look at what remained, but it wouldn’t pay for their transportation. When I arrived, she was awaiting vehicles that would take the books away. I made a quick calculation, and although I worried about appearing greedy, I figured that I had nothing to lose.

“May I have all of them?” I asked.

She seemed surprised for only a moment, and then, appearing to make a quick calculation of her own, she agreed. The help of the two young men was again enlisted to return the bags via elevator to my one-room apartment. As this was going on, the woman offered to show me a few other items that had belonged to Howard and that remained in the building. She took me to his 17th-floor apartment, where bookcases lined one wall and a low bed remained in the middle of the room. She then escorted me to his basement storage bin, essentially a wire cage, where an assortment of albums, cookware, and additional books remained. I said that I would take all the items in storage—or more precisely, assume responsibility for them. All that I ultimately decided not to keep, I would be responsible for discarding. She arranged for me to have keys and access both to the apartment and to the storage bin for a few days, and then she was gone. Later, as I reflected upon her actions, I considered the possibility that she gave me the books not because she wanted to save time and money, but because she understood that they had been found by someone who might love them as much as their original owner obviously had.

* * *

Back in my apartment, I surveyed the scene. Bags of books were everywhere. They narrowed my thin hallway, making passage with my bicycle the proverbial camel’s trip through the needle’s eye. Other bags made stepping from the bathroom to the closet an exercise in Monty Python’s silly walks. In the kitchen they covered the countertops and floor, blocking access to the cabinets and fridge. In the main part of my studio, only my futon was left uncovered with bags. It was crazy, but what beautiful book was I going to discard first—the biography of Dickens, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, or the reprint of the first edition of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, its original price, “one dollar fifty,” quaintly printed on its spine? With euphoric disbelief, I spent a few hours exploring my windfall. There was not a single book that was not important, not a single book that I didn’t love. Howard had expressed his love for these books by acquiring an instrument that, when pressed on a page, left a raised seal; inside each volume, the notation read “Library of Howard Arnold Berkowitz.” I ran my fingers over the colorless words, as though they were Braille. I knew that Howard must have invested many hours of thought in choosing the books, and many thousands of dollars in procuring them.

Within a day or two, I returned to Howard’s apartment to take another look at his bookshelves. They had been made from thick, heavy slabs of wood that retained a rough, natural quality. The bookshelves were not fancy, but they were beautiful. Howard’s bed, which lay flat on the floor in the middle of the room, was framed by those same sturdy wooden planks. 

I decided to capture the bookcases for my apartment, though for a reason I can’t quite remember I had to shorten them with a saw. Because my job as a tennis pro often kept me at the courts well past regular business hours, I started my sawing late one night in Howard’s darkened apartment. It was rather spooky, sawing in the stillness, where others might wonder about the sounds coming from the home of their recently deceased neighbor. Howard’s presence in the room was surreal. It was so dark, so empty, and so quiet, except for the rhythmic chshsh-sh-chshsh-sh-chshsh-sh of the saw. During breaks, I would gaze at the nocturnal view that he had enjoyed for 17 years—the long avenues with their streetlights, the headlights streaming north and south along Lake Shore Drive, the dark vastness of the lake. I cannot remember how I transported those heavy shelves to my apartment, but once there, I loaded them with Howard’s beautiful books.

Howard’s albums in storage were of classical music and Broadway musical theatre, the books devoted mostly to bodybuilding and cooking. He’d also collected cookware of obviously high quality, made in Denmark, I think. The pots were white on the inside and bright yellow on the outside, with handles made of wood and bottoms of steel. Finding room for the cookware in my kitchen cabinets didn’t present a problem, as the cabinets had contained, to that point, a solitary plastic bowl to hold each morning’s helping of cold cereal. (“I do have a bowl,” I had once told my mother, upon her query whether I was even minimally equipped to dine in my own apartment.) I gave away Howard’s albums and his bodybuilding books. Though I later regretted giving up the albums, my severely crowded apartment seemed to require that I ruthlessly discard at least some of Howard’s belongings.

Last came Howard’s bed, which I decided that I liked. The mattress was essentially a futon and was covered by a white comforter with light-green stripes. Beneath the mattress, I found a few pages of gay erotica, and again thought of lines from “Soon”: “Love was the strange first cause / That bred grief in its seed.” I transported Howard’s bed to my apartment, where I set it on the floor next to my futon, which I soon gave away. I took the comforter to the cleaners. After it came back, I found myself sleeping in Howard’s bed, warmed by his comforter, with his pots in my cupboards, and surrounded by his books.

* * *

Illustration by Caroline Tomlinson

 

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