When a museum becomes a library

For the next three months, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is taking on a novel role: lending library.

A new exhibit, “Bound to Be Held: A Book Show,” brings together about 1,000 books donated by members of the public. Visitors to the museum can browse the collection and even check out the books, just like in a public library.

Josh Greene conceived the idea of a library exhibit. photo/gary sexton

“I liked this idea that you would take something on the honor system that had been chosen with a fair amount of thought from someone you might not know,” said Josh Greene, the artist behind the installation.

The exhibit is meant to highlight both the experience of reading and books as objects. Cushy pillows on the gallery floor create a comfortable reading space for visitors who want to spend time with the books.

The books themselves are whimsically annotated with information about the donors on their spines, including the donor’s year of birth, religion and Zodiac sign. Further information about the donors, like their height and eye color, is available in a card catalog. The donated books are inscribed with the donors’ thoughts about them.

Greene calls the collection of donated books “The Library of Particular Significance.”

“Aspects of it were kind of absurd,” said Greene, a Berkeley-based conceptual artist. “I wanted the library to reveal itself as something different than a normal library or bookstore.”

For the show’s launch on March 26, books were shelved according to each donor’s Zodiac sign. Thus, a visitor could easily browse all the books donated by Leos and come to her own conclusions about the reading habits of people with summer birthdays. As the show moves forward, the books will be rearranged according to other criteria, such as the donor’s height or religion.

This show is the first that Renny Pritikin, the CJM’s chief curator, has produced since joining the museum almost a year ago. He had curated shows with Greene earlier in his career at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Nelson Gallery at U.C. Davis, and he approached Greene about creating a show for the CJM.

Greene’s sketch of the “Library of Particular Significance,” the name he’s given to the exhibit’s collection. photo/cjm

Greene had been working on an online book project called “Read by Famous,” which solicited celebrities to donate books from their personal collections to be auctioned to members of the public, with the proceeds benefitting literacy organizations ( “Bound to Be Held”  includes 25 selected books from “Read by Famous,” including works donated by Junot Díaz, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Gavin Newsom.

“I can’t believe I am giving away this book,” wrote Michelle Tea, a San Francisco writer, in her copy of “Chelsea Girls” by Eileen Myles that she donated to “Read by Famous,” now on display at the CJM. “It is easily the most important book in my life — the book that taught me how to write, that affirmed the writing I was already doing as literature, worthy, important and readable. Because of this book I dared hope that one day I could be a writer and live a writer’s life.”

“Bound to Be Held” raises questions about a reader’s relationship with books, building on the importance of books in Jewish culture.

“I don’t think Jews are the only people who are into books, but I am Jewish and I grew up around a lot of reverence for books,” Greene said. When seeking donations for the show, he reached out through various community groups, including local synagogues and the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay.

Pritikin believes the show will foster dialogue about books, which he sees as a Jewish value.

“The hope is people will read and share books, and the gallery will be transformed from a place to merely look at things to a place to talk, [where] community is built and progress is made in understanding the world,” Pritikin said.

The CJM will host a number of special events in conjunction with the show, including a moderated conversation May 7 with Tea, Myles and Jill Soloway, all of whom donated books to “Read by Famous,” and an evening of contemporary Jewish poets reading works by deceased Jewish poets. On alternate Fridays between noon and

2 p.m. during the show’s run, members of the public who bring a book to read in the gallery will receive free museum admission.

When the show concludes in June, the books contributed by members of the public will be donated to the San Francisco Public Library, Pritikin said.

“Bound to Be Held: A Book Show,” through June 28 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission Street, S.F.


Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.