The Man Who Ate Books
A reader digests
By Max Blue
Max Blue reads from "The Man Who Ate Books"
From Brooklyn Beat, Vol 37, Issue 12, December 1990
I first heard about Sebastian Folkenflik by chance, second-hand gossip from an old bookseller in Lower Manhattan who talked at me incessantly while I rummaged through the dollar bin near the door of his subterranean establishment. But for one reason or another a few years passed before I actually met the man who ate books. These were two extraordinarily memorable afternoons spent in Folkenflik’s sitting room, meetings arranged by the bookseller himself through a mysterious intermediary woman I only came to meet later on.
The first time I visit Folkenflik at his home in Williamsburg, it is a typical October morning in Brooklyn, the leaves changing or, having changed, falling from the boughs of trees into golden piles along the sidewalk. I arrive at a large brick apartment building in the middle of a block on Penn Street, nondescript and aged, as most of the surrounding buildings are. When I ring the buzzer, a slow, thickly European voice interrogates me as to the specifics of my visit and for a long moment I worry that Folkenflik has perhaps forgotten our appointment. But once things are cleared up, he sounds genuinely excited to see me and instructs me to come up “with haste.”
The seventy-six-year-old man who greets me at the door of his apartment is stooped low to the ground, with the congenial features of a Jack-O-Lantern left on the porch a few weeks too long. Unlike many of the blind, Folkenflik does not wear dark glasses to conceal his milk-white pupils and he does not use a cane to help him move about in the comfort of his own home.
The apartment where he lives alone is arranged to suit his needs, sparse enough so that the relatively small rooms are easy for him to navigate: the front door opens into a short hallway with a single hook on the wall for his coat and hat; this hall turns immediately into the sitting room, which is a roughly square space furnished with two large armchairs and a coffee table between them; the single window looks out into the building’s wind tunnel (it is an ugly view, but such matters are of little consequence); the kitchen is similarly bare, featuring only a stove and sink; the bathroom is the only space that has been significantly altered to accommodate its occupant, outfitted with several handrails at various angles, beside the toilet and in the shower; the bedroom, Folkenflik tells me (as it is the one room I am not permitted to enter for matters of privacy), is “furnished simply with a bed and dresser.”
We settle into the armchairs in the sitting room, my tape recorder propped up by a stack of resting books on the coffee table between us (there are books piled on almost every available surface in the apartment, though mostly in the kitchen). Folkenflik sits with a thick quilt over his knees, his feet barely touching the carpeted floor.
He offers me an ashtray.
“I am not sure if you smoke,” he says, “but that will not stop me.”
Indeed, Folkenflik smokes almost constantly, Lucky Strikes that he often lights off the last butt. He is very particular about his brand.
“They remind me that I am in America,” he says, a fact that one would not expect such a longtime resident to need reminding of. “Ever since I lost my eyesight,” he explains, “how can I be sure?”
When Folkenflik overhears me taking out a cigarette of my own, he asks what brand I have and when I tell him, he demands that I smoke one of his Luckies instead
“There is a carton in the cupboard,” he tells me. “Please, take a pack for your stay.”
He explains that he suffers from the heightened secondary senses that some of the blind are prone to, and that the residual scent of anything other than a Lucky will confuse him for days.
I decide to begin by asking him about his emigration.
“There were tensions,” he says, “at the time of my youth in Poland. In the middle of the nineteen-thirties. The Nazi party, you know, was closing in around us, around the communities we had there. Many of my relations were already gone, to America. Some of us had already been beaten, someone we knew killed. It was a very real thing, you know, this violence that had been floating around our heads, in the air, for very much a long time, threatening whispers turned into murdering.”
I interject, here, some comment about cultural genocide.
“Yes,” Folkenflik says, “they burned books. The information was being destroyed. They were trying to do to history what is done to chalk on a board, in the schoolhouse. And when I saw this, with my own eyes, I knew that I must go.”
Folkenflik arrived at Ellis Island in May, 1939, at the age of twenty-three. He recalls some complications getting his affairs in order, but forgets what the exact issue was. He moved in with a cousin, or perhaps an uncle, and entered the labor force eagerly. For the next twenty-odd years, he worked in a paper factory in Lower Manhattan.
From the animated way in which Folkenflik speaks, it is apparent that he took great pride in his work, referring to it regularly as his “purpose.” His vision was lost in an accident, in 1961, while overseeing a machine called a Hollander beater, which is employed in the bleaching of wood pulp early in the papermaking process.
“The very thing,” Folkenflik says with a smile on his face, “that had given me a place in America was that same thing that took my eyesight away. You know, I am a man who appreciates humor in all things. I am a man who appreciates God’s ways.”
Today, he gets by on a sizeable settlement from the paper company and as a recipient of Social Security. How else, I wonder, does Folkenflik manage? He is mostly on his own, having outlived all his friends and whatever family he once had in the United States. But this solitude does not seem to have led to loneliness, as he claims to be quite happy with the life he has made for himself.
“I cook,” he says, when I ask him how he spends his days, “and I read.”
This seems to be a natural segue into how Folkenflik came to establish his particular method of reading.
“This is a very funny thing,” he tells me, “a very strange story that I think you will like. But, if you do not mind, it begins with a joke. This is a joke I was told in the factory, many years before I became blind, a joke well-known among Jews. I will tell it to you:
“A Jew is sitting on a park bench eating his lunch, you know. A simple lunch of matzo. Before too long goes by, a blind man, a beggar, sits down beside him. The Jew, who is eating his lunch, feels a great swelling of charity in his breast and offers to the blind beggar a sheet of matzo from out of his sack. The blind beggar says Yes, and accepts the matzo gratefully, but after a few moments of him chewing the bread, he spits it onto the ground. The Jew asks, Is there something the matter, neighbor? to which the beggar replies, Who wrote that shit?”
Here, Folkenflik is beset by a gale of laughter, which turns quickly to violent coughing.
“It was this joke,” he explains, “that came back to my mind after I lost my eyesight, that gave me the idea to try preparing a book, a text, for my Passover meal. There is a strain of the truth in all jokes, in all stories, you know, and so I had thought to myself, If this beggar could know the quality of a text by chewing it, so might I be able to do the same. Forget, of course that the point of the joke is that the matzo is not a text, but only just that matzo tastes like paper. Only, still, this was my inspiration. It was very important for me that my first attempt be with a text I knew, something I would recognize the taste of, as a manner of speaking. This was a few years after I lost my eyesight, 1963. The pleasure I missed most in all the world had been books, was reading. So, it had been an act of desperation, you might say. I asked a friend to bring to me a paperback copy of The Promised Land, by Władysław Reymont, a favorite text of mine. It is about Poland, the workers. When I first came here, I read it over and over, it reminded me of home, but I also saw in it my experience here, as a worker. I boiled it in broth. Perhaps I added some potatoes, an onion; garlic, at least, you know. My recipes are much better now than they once were. But anyway, it was the thickness of a good stew, something like I would have eaten at home that my mother would have cooked me. So, I ate the stew and then lay down here, in my chair, for a short rest. Sure enough, when I sat down, it was as if I just read the whole book, the whole thing was fresh in my mind.”
But he had read the book before, I said. Wasn’t there a good chance that the act of preparing and consuming the pages had simply prompted him to recall the novel?
“Absolutely,” Folkenflik says, flapping his hands, “I thought of the very same thing. It is the natural question. Which is why, the next day, I tried again a second time with a text I had never read, a text I could not possibly know: the morning paper. Yes? I asked my friend to bring for me the morning paper and not to tell me any of what it said . For breakfast, I cooked a pan of shakshuka, laying down the leaves of the front page of the paper in the sauce. You understand? Can you smell it? It is an easy dish, shashuka, quickly made, and with canned tomatoes there is so much juice as to soak the paper really very well. So, I sat down and ate my shakshuka and then I asked myself, once I had finished with it, What happened yesterday in the world, Sebastian? And what do you know but that the answer was there in my head, as though I had seen the headline with my own eyes. I can tell it to you now, same as it was: Kennedy is killed by sniper as he rides in car in Dallas; Johnson sworn in on plane. And I said to my friend afterward, Is this true? About Kennedy and Johnson? And he said, Yes, Sebastian, Kennedy was killed by the sniper. But this is a miracle! he said, and so on and so on. And I said, Abraham – that was his name, my friend – I said, Abraham, last week you were about to be divorced from your wife and this week you come to me telling me that you and Mariah – that was the wife of Abraham – you come telling me that you and Mariah are waking up beside each other in the bed like two virgins who have made love for the first time all over again. So, you see? God is strange, like I always say. Strange and wonderful. And so, why should I not have had a miracle, too, you know?
“But I do not eat the morning paper anymore. That would be a waste, now, when I can simply listen to the radio. I save my appetite for literature. The last summer it was Proust, the whole of his magnificent novel. All seven volumes. Of course, with my recipes, I am able to read much faster than the average man, one hundred or so pages in each day, split between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In between the meals, I sit here and digest what I have had read, so to speak.”
This may appear to be a very singular lifestyle, and it is. Between listening to the news – which he does while cooking – eating, and digesting, Folkenflik rarely does anything else. But still, he is not a complete shut-in. Exercise, in fact, is one of his top priorities.
“Yes, I leave the apartment,” he says indignantly when I ask. “I walk once around the block each day. Also, it is very important to me that I do this at the same time each day. Because, on the day that I do not do it, on the day that I am no longer able to do it, then that will have been the day I will know that I am dead. But as long as I still can go out for my walk, then I know I am alive.”
This prompts me to ask how Folkenflik tells the time.
“Simply,” he said, “by the church bells.”
And, as if on cue, the bells begin resounding, somewhere in a nearby steeple. Before going out, Folkenflik dons a large suede jacket, a herringbone flat cap, and impenetrable black glasses: the disguise of an average blind man. I see him out and we part ways at the corner of Penn and Bedford, Folkenflik’s thin cane clicking back and forth before him as he sets off down the street.
The afternoon of my second visit, a month later, is overcast, with a dampness in the air. Folkenflik has not forgotten our appointment this time, letting me in when I ring the buzzer without even asking for my name over the intercom. But, when I knock at the apartment door, it is a young woman who answers.
Folkenflik makes introductions between myself and the young woman, from his chair in the sitting room:
“This is the lovely girl here who keeps my house,” he shouts. “And this,” he tells her, “is the boy coming from the newspaper.”
Mary Elena (who asked I not use her real name) is a shy young woman, twenty-one or twenty-two, who blushes when she tells me that she reads my column. She hastily adds that she was just leaving, and I ask if I might speak with her briefly before she goes, for the sake of this story. We excuse ourselves to the kitchen for a brief exchange, while Folkenflik appears to doze in his armchair.
Alone with me, Mary Elena becomes a bit more candid. She tells me that she is employed by a home-care service that has assigned her to visit Folkenflik once or twice a week, to bring him groceries, to tidy up, and see to his various needs.
“Every week,” she says, “he gives me a list of books to bring him. His handwriting is actually really good for a blind guy. He gives me the money to buy them in advance and it’s always more than enough and he always tells me to buy a book for myself with what’s left over. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I go out with friends.”
When I ask Mary Elena her opinion on Folkenflik’s ability to physically ingest the information on a printed page, she drops her voice and looks at me with a conspiratorial arch of her plucked eyebrows.
“Here’s what I think,” she says. “I think the old guy isn’t really blind. Or maybe half-blind. I don’t mean just in one eye, or something, I mean half-way in both eyes. Like it is when you squint. He’s handicapped, okay, I’m not saying he’s a liar, I’m just saying he’s not full on with the can’t see. I think he reads them before he cooks them, right? Maybe to him, it’s all the same.”
For many of her shut-ins, Mary Elena is used to cooking: usually she prepares one or two meals that will last the patients, as she calls them, for a few days. But Folkenflik is the rare case who insists on cooking for himself. This, Mary Elena says, is proof that he must have at least some vision left. (Medical records I consulted for the purpose of this story, however, state that Folkenflik’s vision is totally impaired.)
There is another reason that Mary Elena suspects Folkenflik of possessing a certain amount of his vision and this has to do with what the young woman refers to as “infrequent physical encounters” between herself and “the patient.”
“There’s no way a blind guy could know his way around a girl’s body the way the old Jew does.”
This statement obviously comes as a shock to me, as does Mary Elena’s frankness. But then again, anonymity emboldens people in ways we journalists rely on. I don’t know if it is her vulgarity or the fondness I realize I have developed for Folkenflik that makes me want to think she’s wrong, that he truly is blind which would, after all, make his skill as a lover all the more amusing.
After she leaves, I speak at some length about Mary Elena’s charms, hoping my little performance will draw some further information out of Folkenflik. But the old man only smiles and says,
“Yes, she has a lovely voice. But as for her beauty, I would not know. I do not touch faces like that famous woman. I prefer to imagine everyone as someone I knew from the Old World, like casting a stage play with actors from my past.”
When I ask Folkenflik directly if he has had any romantic relationships since his accident, he responds enigmatically:
“Reading is so much like having a lover,” he says. “One is a thing of language, the other is a thing of inexplicable abstractions, yet I have come to discover that the two are, in so many ways, the same. What is language, after all, if it is not a series of inexplicable abstractions?”
Having gotten a sense of his general life and person during my first visit, I am anxious to apprehend the specifics of Folkenflik’s culinary practice. I begin by asking if boiling is still his preferred method of preparing novels.
“These days, I approach a larger novel as I would an animal,” he tells me, “like one would prepare the fish or the bird. Because I mostly eat hardcover, these days, strictly hardcover, unless Mary Elena can only produce the paperback edition. And that is only if she has had not tried the very best she can. I will choose often not to eat the book at all if paperback is the only option available. You may not think so, since both of them contain the same words, hardcover and paperback, but there is a real difference to the cooking side of the experience. A paperback is very easy, it can be boiled whole, as you say. But a hardcover must be, you know, filleted.”
At this, I insist that Folkenflik demonstrate his process for me. He is more than happy to oblige and we move from the sitting room to the kitchen, where he sets about preparing a volume of the Encyclopedia; Volume 16, to be precise, containing the entries “Chicago” through “Death.”
He begins by washing the book in the sink, gently running a light stream of warm water over the jacket and spine for several minutes, until they begin to buckle slightly, becoming pliable enough for him to handle as need be.
“First,” says Folkenflik, sliding a large deba knife from a wooden block on the counter, “you must be sure the knife you have is very sharp. I always have the girl take my knives to be sharpened twice a month.”
After a tactile preamble around the volume’s contours with his fingertips, Folkenflik sets about filleting it exactly like one would a large fish. First, he makes one shallow incision down the length of the hinge, the small beveled trench running between the spine and book board. The cover comes away from the spine easily, and is discarded onto the counter. Folkenflik turns the volume over and repeats the process with the back cover. Now, only the spine remains, affixed to the signatures with bookbinding glue. He makes another incision on each side, separating the signatures from the spine and tugging the strip of board loose where it proves resistant. He runs a thumb along the edges of the signatures, pulling out any loose threads or excess residue of glue.
He then separates the many signatures into roughly equal stacks, trying his best to keep them in order, arranging them in the bottom of a large casserole dish, which he greases lightly with softened butter.
He turns the dial on the oven slowly, feeling around its perimeter with his thumb and setting it with surprising accuracy to three-hundred-fifty-degrees Fahrenheit.
Then, while the oven is heating up, Folkenflik prepares a sauce in a large cast iron pan on the stovetop. First, he browns an onion, relying only on his sense of smell to assess when it is the right time to add the spices: thyme and nutmeg, which he locates in the rack hanging on the wall by counting off the positions of various bottles and tins. He pours this mixture into the casserole dish, smoothing the signatures and topping it all off with generous gush of wine from a bottle which stands open on the countertop.
He next adds the butt of a stale loaf of bread, from which he peels away the cracked crust with his wrinkled hands, tearing the inside of the loaf into small pieces and spreading them over the contents of the casserole dish.
All of this is finally smothered with a mountain of shredded cheese which, to my relief, he produces from a plastic bag in the refrigerator, rather than grating from a block.
After placing the casserole dish in the oven, Folkenflik twists the face of an ancient mechanical timer to run down an hour and thirty minutes, counting off each twist of the device with a quiet whisper.
When we return to the sitting room, I notice that it has begun to rain. When I ask Folkenflik if it would be all right for me to turn on some lights before we settle back down, he laughs and tells me that there aren’t any. The bulbs in the lone overhead fixtures in each room have burnt out long ago and never been replaced. Folkenflik has lived in this apartment for twenty-three years, and for all of them he has been blind, all of them he has spent in darkness.
“What would a blind man need for lights?” he says. “I save on the electricity bill.”
It is clear by his cursory listing of favorite titles and authors that Folkenflik is incredibly well-read, from the classics all the way up to the most recent entries into the canon of American literature.
I ask what has brought him around to the Encyclopedia Britannica as his current reading material.
“Yes,” he says, “the natural question. Tell me, have you read Borges? He has many great stories, but it is mostly with the one about the library that I am concerned.”
(As many alert readers will know, Folkenflik refers here, of course, to the 1941 story “The Library of Babel,” in which the Argentine writer conceived of a hive-like library which contained numerous volumes written using every combination of letters in the Latin alphabet, so that every conceivable, coherent book would be among them, including a vast number of books written effectively in gibberish. The library would be unimaginably large, of course, but ultimately finite.)
“I am not a young man,” Folkenflik says, as though this were not apparent to the naked eye. “I understand that I do not have long in the world to read every book. Not long ago, I read this story of Borges’s and that is what gave me the idea to read the Encyclopedia. I thought to myself, maybe, if I did that, if I took all of that information into my mind, then it would be the same as reading every other book, you know?”
As the evening passes, our conversation turns toward the personal, the anecdotal. To my surprise, Folkenflik begins to take an interest in his interviewer, and with the deft ability of a greatly practiced conversationalist, he manages to turn the tables on me before I quite realize what is happening. I find myself discussing matters great and small, from the origin of my own family’s emigration (Sicily), to such trivialities as last week’s grocery list. At some point, shortly after Folkenflik begins to ask me about myself, my tape recorder cuts off, and so the majority of this dialogue is lost to time. Darkness falls outside, and inside the apartment, too, the great window welcoming the night like a page drinking the gush of spilled ink. We become only voices, and the slow glowing embers of our cigarettes dancing in the dark. Now we are talking about the disappearance of the radio drama; now, again, about women. After a while, we lapse into a silence occasionally interrupted by the flick of a match, the flare illuminating my hands for the briefest instant as I light another cigarette. (Folkenflik, as I have said, lights his cigarettes off the last butt.) I become increasingly aware of the rhythm of our inhalations, the whisper of the cigarette paper burning, and of the rainfall outside. I close my eyes. The air is thick with smoke, it sits heavily on my tongue, the ashy, treelike flavor. No smoke detector? I ask. No smoke detector, he says. With this concern put to rest, I return to sharing his company with comfort, lighting another cigarette, trying, this time, to do it all without opening my eyes; taking out the cigarette, feeling to make sure I am putting the filtered end between my lips, striking the match and bringing it to my face. I manage, but it is difficult, and I wonder if this is why Folkenflik lights his cigarettes off the butt; so that he has only to strike one match each day, in the morning. I would like, he says, to correct a small error in the record. What is it? I ask. Sometimes, he says, I do still eat a page from the newspaper. Sometimes I eat the crossword puzzle. I do not cook it. I eat it whole. It is thin paper, it goes down easy. Like communion, for a Catholic. Then the puzzle is in my head and so I sit and I fill the little boxes.
And then we fall into silence again. The rain stops for a while and I hear Folkenflik’s steady, ragged breathing. My body becomes suddenly heavy in the cradle of the worn cushion beneath my buttocks, my hand hard to lift from the where my fingers trace the trenches in the corduroy upholstery. The rain starts up again. A smell cuts through the miasma of our tobacco smoke, the warm, salty fragrance of fish and oil and cheese and bread, the earthy potpourri of nutmeg and thyme. My stomach rumbles in the silence.
The bright ding of the timer rouses us both from our drowsy reverie, and Folkenflik excuses himself to the kitchen to remove the casserole from the oven.
“I would ask you to stay for dinner,” he says, his vague outline barely discernable in the doorway between the sitting room and the kitchen, “but I am afraid I do not have anything you could eat.”
—Atticus Reed, Brooklyn
Editor’s note: Sebastian Folkenflik died on November 23, 1990, shortly before this story first went to print.
San Francisco, CA, USA
"The idea for this story was the result of three inspirations, two of which are mentioned in the narrative itself and one which gave me the idea for the overall structure: The joke Folkenflik tells about the matzo, which is a joke it seems I’ve known my entire life and which I find funnier as time goes on; a desire to pay homage to Jorge Luis Borges, whom Folkenflik both directly appreciates and indirectly embodies; and the wish I often have in my work as a journalist that interview subjects will say something really strange or appalling."
Max Blue writes about the visual arts and modern culture. His criticism has appeared in Art Practical, SF Weekly, the San Francisco Examiner, and others, and his fiction has appeared in Your Impossible Voice and Two Hawks Quarterly. He lives in San Francisco.