I scanned the entire bookshelf of the library at Birch Coffee, a true New York City gem.
The sign clearly said, “Take a Book, Leave a Book, or just Take a Book.” I didn’t have a book to leave – though I was certain to bring one when I returned – but I wanted a book to read.Like most cafe or hostel book exchanges, the selection was mostly not to my liking. It was full of New York Times fiction bestselllers, Janot Enanovich, Stephen King, brain candy.
That was not what I was looking for.
I wanted something that would touch my soul, give me perspective about my life, and about the human experience. It was a hard week, and I was in this cafe studying, and I wanted something to remind me why I am here, getting my Masters.
The first shelf had nothing – though a Hebrew book caught my attention just for the script – so I went to back of the cafe, near the bathroom, to the second shelf. It was the very bottom left, the very last book I saw, that caught my eye.“The Color of Water,” a Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother.I grabbed it, and began reading. Immediately I was captivated by this story that took place in the city that I was living, sometimes only block away in Harlem, about a Jewish mother, estranged from her family and religion, who raised 12 half-black children on her own, who were caught in-between two worlds.

Why do memoirs capture my heart so thoroughly? Why do I crave stories about pain and suffering, why do I crave so much to understand the human experience? In my perch at Columbia University, I often feel like there is something I am missing. I know this isn’t reality, this pristine campus, this access to knowledge – but what is reality? That was my reason for coming to Columbia, my reason for traveling around the world four years ago. It is the quest of my life.

When I am in a cafe, I sit and wonder – who are these people in here with me? What stories do they have, what experiences have they gone through? The written word, I believe, is a powerful way to see someone’s soul. To read, you must be able to listen, to listen, you must have patience, and you must be open. You must let part of yourself out, to feel and understand.

I find myself becoming more emotional when I read. This book, the Color of Water, has touched me often. When I get into a memoir, I find myself often unable to read another page, so overcome with emotions that I need to put the book down, and gaze into the distance. Let the feelings sink in, let my own mind wander.

The most valuable asset we have as humans are our experiences, our stories, our connections to the basic qualities that make us who we are. So I’ll keep on reading – probably for the rest of my life, in my never-ending quest to understand the world. I’ve found that each experience is different, and that my emotions never become dulled no matter how many memoirs I read. Instead, this is the only thing that makes me feel human sometimes, in today’s modern, money driven world.

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