Several weeks ago, in passing, I read an on-line post wherein a friend of mine mentioned they had gotten rid of their theological library. This person, at one time an active teacher and writer in the field, had for assorted reasons, moved on. I imagine, he, like myself, would wander into the room where books lay dormant on shelves and think to himself, “what am I ever going to do with all these books? At one time they mattered, but now, they sit idle, seemingly mocking me with each passing glance.”
Of course, I cannot speak for him; I can only speak for myself. I confess I have projected a little here, but his post began my pondering of the same question, “Why do I have this library? What purpose does it serve? If I am not chiefly making money through its use, then why allow it to take up room in my house?”
My library and I have a love-hate relationship. My love affair with books began in college, when I was 18. Prior to my freshman year, I had been a genuine product of public education and had managed to read less than 5 books, in their entirety, by the time I entered the university. To say that the University was a baptism by fire…was an understatement. I had literally gone from a place where I could get by without reading, to a place in which not reading would prove disastrous (and not to mention lead to a profound waste of money).
I recall a class I took in the Spring of 2000, titled “Biblical Exegesis.” Prior to this class I had read only 2 novels cover to cover and one of them I had read in the 6th grade. My record with books and reading was dismal. I came from a home that didn’t discourage reading, but certainly didn’t encourage it. My parents had no book shelves or books, the Bible withstanding. I say that not to disparage my home, but to say that books were foreign objects to my parents who were concerned with the practicalities of everyday life.
As a fledging theology student, I stridently walked into this class desiring to learn but not yet exposed to the manner of learning. The course had its usual introductory fare: greetings, syllabus review, brief lecture and assignments for the dearly departing (or so I felt). Our first assignment was to read Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise, in its entirety, and write a 6-8 page response to the book…ALL IN 1 WEEK! I had only read 1 book completely through in the last 6 years and now, in less than 7 days, I had to read an entire adult novel AND write a 2000-word response.
Baptism by fire.
At the time, I did not appreciate the method, but looking back, I am thankful for the results because this class is where I learned to love books. The class taught me to read, taught me to engage, taught me to passionately strive with texts, both biblical and secular. In sum, it was the class where I began to learn to think and it started with this book, placed into my hands, by one of my dearest teachers who has subsequently become one of my dearest friends in the many years since Spring 2000.
From Biblical Exegesis came many more classes and many more books. At first, my library grew as anyone else’s: composed of texts used in classes, proverbial Deuteronomic stones set on my shelves to remind me of the waters we had crossed together. Slowly a strange thing began to transpire, I began to buy books out of will, out of a desire to learn, to engage, to have my worldview expanded with information and imagination. I was no longer the person that bought “what I had to for class,” as I became the person that bought books for the love of reading, the love of learning.
My library grew to mainly include books on theology, philosophy and biblical studies. When I entered seminary, my library began to shift and I began acquiring texts on economics, linguistics, psychology and sexuality…as well as continuing to purchase texts in the prior areas. As I matured, I began to appreciate the role of fiction and history, and so my library grew to include these sorts of texts. Now, my library includes a healthy array of books across all these categories, and while it is not as prolific as many who have taught me, my humble library can boast a thousand or so texts, maybe more.
This library, however, has not become what I thought it would when its collection began. It has not been utilized as I thought it would. I have 2 degrees: a BA in Religion and an MDiv with a focus on academic research. I am not a fulltime pastor (though I am ordained) and I am not a full-time teacher (though I am published in a few places and enrolled in a DMin program). I do not use my library to wield my trade, at least the trade that supports my family. For many years I have balanced church freelance work with secular part time work. The goal was to eventually be one who trades in intellectual property and shapes minds or one who stands in a pulpit and shapes lives…yet I do not do either of these in the way that is conventionally accepted. My library was built with this intention, yet this library is not used in this way.
As my friend rid himself of his theological library, I too have thought of ridding myself of mine. I get it; I understand what it is to stare at something that seems to be holding you back even while at one time it was symbolic of that which propelled you forward.
As life has taken me to this place, I have struggled with what to do with these books that have at various time acted as an albatross slung about my neck. My books have challenged me, pressed me and comforted me. Equally, however, they have made me angry, their very presence a reminder that I am not “where I should be.” They have been symbolic of an occupation not fulfilled or of a passion unrealized.
Since 2015 I have taken liberty to rid myself of some books. In fits of frustration I have decided that some of these books are of no “use” to me so I have expunged them. Truthfully, this was an act of despair and simultaneously an act of logistics: I needed more space and some of these books were simply taking up space. While the process of ridding myself of books may have been instigated through depression, the result has been a little more space (that I have probably already filled with more books).
Those who know me well can most likely not divorce me from books, or at least not divorce me from the learning process associated with books. Books, and the wise people who placed them in my hands, turned the lazy teenager who had never read anything into a man that has matured because of what he has encountered in the thoughts and words of others. Books have been that which lay battle to the atrophy of mind that our culture so easily thrusts upon us.
Considering books, I often consider my own. I wonder why I keep so many. I wonder what purpose they serve.
My day is filled with running a business, communicating with clients and employees, paying bills and organizing marketing. My day is filled with being a PR and HR representative, engaging our community, helping organize our office and offering supervisory support to our several locations that often involves driving 300 miles round trip multiple times a week. I am busy with the practicality of a secular job and do not have time for the trivialities of theories published in pages that most of the world has already forgotten or the conjecture of a theologian who apparently has nothing better to do with their time than ponder what God knew and when did God know it. Life doesn’t afford me the luxury of determining whether God is so powerful as to even be able to create a rock that even God could not pick up.
So, I consider books and I wonder why I keep so many. I wonder their role and their use. I do use some of my books but there are others that will rarely be used again. In this regard I imagine my library is not so much unlike the library of others: landmarks of studies done, concerns resolved, classes developed.
Why, if these texts are not a means to an economic end, do I keep them around? Why can I not, like my friend, rid myself of them?
The answer is simple: their presence keeps me humble, but it also keeps me hungry.
It keeps me humble because they are a constant reminder of how small I am, how finite my intellect is, and how unrealistic it is to think I can know everything of anything. I am reminded of how provisional most of my knowledge truly is as my ideas and opinions could never begin to usurp the sheer mountain of text that a library represents. Whenever I bemoan my inability to read all I want or know all I desire, my library represents my inability to do so and it humbles me, enabling me to give thanks for what I am able to do, be, and know, even while I recognize there is a world of knowledge that will always lay beyond my grasp.
It keeps me hungry because even as I am confronted with my liminality I am also driven to overcome it. Books are an endless quest that contain endless worlds that are only a page away. Books are the key to knowledge, knowledge to power, power to influence, and influence to persuasion. If I am to be a person of persuasion that can influence the world, and others, for good then that process begins with reading and being informed; it begins with speech and speech is rehearsed in texts. Books keep me hungry because their presence keeps me from settling even when settling is exactly what I want to do.
If I live I am a person who is being shaped, who is hopefully growing, maturing, and living into the calling of my life…and books remind me that life is not done with me even though at times I feel down with it.
Books have kept me mentally spry, witty, well informed, imaginative, engaged, and not to mention drastically improving my vocabulary through these last 18 years. Were it not for books, my writing would be akin to the musings of a dim-witted fool (though I do not object that could still be the case). Books are not only interesting but the most interesting people in my life are those who have also wrapped themselves in a world of books (the Good Book as well).
But this is not the whole. Books do keep me humble and they do make me hungry, but there is more: I want my children to see a house full of books.
In an age of glowing screens, I want my children to see their father read; I want them to come by and ask me questions about a book I have been pouring over or walk past a shelf and wonder what “theology” is or who “Slavoj Zizek” was. As they grow up and begin to ask big questions about history, science, faith, love, and the ultimate meaning of it all, I want them to have resources to engage and explore. I want my house to be a house of inquiry. Though I may never pick up some of these books for study again, their presence marks a place I once traveled and it offers a path by which anyone who lives under my roof can follow when they begin to wrestle with the sorts of questions that keeps us humans up at night…and that wake us up in the morning.
Thus, I cannot act as my friend, and rid myself of these things. I must keep them here and there, as reminders of a life I have lived, and of a life that continues to call me even though, at times, I’d rather not listen.
Considering books…I often consider reducing them to capitalist instruments, set to be burned if they do not contribute to my bank account. Then, however, I reconsider, and I wonder where my life would be and how weak my mind would have become, if I had not had such tragically inspiring codices in my house all these years.