A love of books that will live on in death

About 10,000 books to be donated to Maryland's prisons

February 02, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

His father had died at 59 from a heart attack, so that might explain Gerry Solomon's insatiable appetite for life — his desire to personally experience as much of the world as one man can, as quickly as he can, and to read about the rest of it. There was a time when his job with the federal government sent him to Asia and to Europe, and the travel only increased Mr. Solomon's desire for more. He had two master's degrees in psychology, one of them from Johns Hopkins, and a membership in Mensa. He died with a collection of 10,000 books.

That is an estimate but no exaggeration, according to the fellow who recently, with a truck and crew of volunteers, extracted the private library of mostly nonfiction books from Mr. Solomon's apartment near Towson. Additional books came from storage containers.

"When I stepped into that apartment, I was in awe," says Mark Vernarelli, the former television reporter who works as director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "The man had so many books, you could hardly see anything else. His collection ranged from small pocket travel guides to beautiful coffee table books. The subject matter covered the spectrum — from sports to animals, world history to military history, and travel to culinary arts."

Mr. Vernarelli and his crew filled a 20-foot-long box truck "end-to-end and floor-to-ceiling" with Gerry Solomon's books. They were donated to the Maryland prison libraries.

Mr. Solomon died in September at the age of 63. He was a diabetic and had heart disease, according to Judy Richter, who married Mr. Solomon five years ago. It was her idea to donate Mr. Solomon's private collection to the prisons.

There are 12 full-time correctional libraries in Maryland and 10 satellite libraries for close to 22,000 inmates. There are no funds for new books, so Glennor Shirley, the state's prison librarian, has campaigned for donations. I've written about her three times in the last year.

But that's not how Judy Richter came to decide to donate Mr. Solomon's library to the correctional system.

"There should be some good coming out of this sad thing," Ms. Richter says. "Gerry died too young, and he had such a lifelong love of learning. He was a true intellectual. What mattered most to him was knowledge and learning, which was very much a part of his Jewish heritage, and he was devoted to that. So, I thought, who could benefit most from his books but doesn't have the freedom to access them?"

She considered sending them to a village in a country too poor or repressive to have libraries. But it wasn't until after they were married, and more so since Mr. Solomon's death, that Ms. Richter understood the extent of his library, the result of his hunger for knowledge and his refusal to part with any book he acquired. Shipping 10,000 books overseas would be prohibitively expensive.

"And then it just occurred to me," she says. So she contacted Mr. Vernarelli about making a donation to the prison libraries. There will be a ceremony Friday morning in Jessup during which state officials will acknowledge the donation from Gerry Solomon and that of another 700 books collected by the Parole-area Rotary in Anne Arundel County.

I asked Ms. Richter why a man would collect so many books. She mentioned the health problems that had kept Mr. Solomon from working toward the end of his life. "He knew he wouldn't have a long life," she said. "He might have felt that having all those books extended his life, extended his grasp on the world somehow. … He loved learning, he loved ideas."

Now his treasure will be available to men and women who are paying the price for having committed crimes. Maybe they will find in the books what Gerry Solomon found — a reason to live, a reason to hope, and even a reason to be better men and women.

Ms. Richter found a quote from Malcolm X that will appear on the bookplate acknowledging the Gerald R. Solomon Collection, and it goes: "I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading has opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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