Light and Weight

My brother passed away, but he still speaks to me through the books he left behind.

  • June 17, 2024
  • |
  • Essay
  • |
  • By Stone Addington

My brother gave me books when he was alive, and still does. When Gideon passed, I received his library, with all its imposing breadth and weighty wisdom. Philosophy and history, pristine hardcovers, faded paperbacks. It was all there on his now-ownerless shelves, a remnant of the unstoppable wisdom-seeking that he had—and which had inspired me—through long conversations as we huddled together during the holidays or on long car rides. Those memories are decorated by his wit and mischievous laugh, his asides and digressions, his inventive self-deprecations. He once lamented that his metabolism was that of a “dead bear.”  

His books do not contain all of him, but they seem to glow, shining with ideas and questions. If I focus intently, I can see something of him there, a silhouette against a bright background, the man now embodied only by the books of others. 

Standing upright like gravestones, his books are marked with the names of others who passed. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Simone De Beauvoir, Moses Maimonides, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jorge Luis Borges, Walter Kaufmann. But evidence of him abounds, in the notes he left in the margins in his scratchy handwriting, smaller and inkier than my own, in bookmarks left in unfinished books, in a stray eyelash I find lodged in the binding. When I revisit one that we had both read, I regain something: his words, his face, his humor. “Sweet is our gift, yet small,” it says in his copy of The Odyssey. 

There is a strange comfort in reading a book that he had read before he passed, but which I had not. It offers a little peek into the hours Gideon spent with this book, turning pages, thinking. When grief ages into a bruise instead of an open wound, there is a ghostly simulation of the loved ones we knew best. We imagine what they might have said, how they would have reacted. But reading a book he read is new knowledge. I have a chance to know him a bit better, to read the words he read, to imagine what he thought. These books do not give me novel experiences with my brother, but they give me something, like one of his friends telling me a story about him I had not heard before. Sweet is our gift, yet small. 

“Gideon found himself unable to carry his unbearable burdens, so I will lug his books around for him.” 

These paper shrines scattered throughout my home are the only possessions of his that matter to me. I don’t know what happened to his clothes or furniture. They are gone now, I guess, but they were incidental. The books mattered to me because they contained the questions Gideon cared about, the ones that burned for him and shed light on mine. Like Thales, who was so taken with observing the stars that he stumbled into a well, Gideon and I could not turn away from the humanities. 

My luck at having him in my life, though for far too short a time, is not lost on me. These books, and their questions, were warm points of light in Gideon’s life that could, at times, overcome the gloom and offer roaring moments of meaning and transcendence. Like lighting one candle with another, it would be a good undertaking, a good life, to make those lights glow as brightly as possible for as many people as one can. 

My brother took his own life in 2009, in December. The solstice and the anniversary of his death bring overlapping shadows. And, yet, his memory is an unyielding light, shining through every page of every book that touched his mind. Gideon found himself unable to carry his unbearable burdens, so I will lug his books around for him. We all feel the weight of grief, but I am grateful for what I may still carry for the departed. At least this much of him travels with me. Sweet is our gift, yet small. 

Stone Addington is the director of programs and deputy executive director of Humanities Washington. He has a PhD from the department of philosophy at the University of Washington, where he continues to teach. His research focuses on public philosophy, rationality, and the epistemology of extremism. Stone serves on the Washington Museum Association’s Board of Directors and as co-editor-in-chief of the journal, Questions: Philosophy for Young People. 

Humanities Washington

Get the latest news and event information from Humanities Washington, including updates on Think & Drink and Speakers Bureau events.