Considering Books

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.

Why You should Love Antiquarian Books

old book image
A prerequisite to loving old books is, of course, an enjoyment for reading. One can appreciate old books, collect old books, and admire the architecture of their spines and ornate cover designs without reading. But this is to love the value of the books or their aesthetic appeal. This is not the same as loving old books. It is not to get caught in the life of the old book itself, to look upon this simple object with words and covers and feel something more than an object of value.

I have discovered that I am book addict. I like books. I buy them. But there is something about an old text, an antique text, that has a whole other appeal to me than the latest modern novel or the latest academic musings.

As I hold an old book I realize a few things.

First, the life of the author rushes through my mind.

I imagine a person that prior to modern distractions poured their shade and energy into this text. Someone who by a dimly lit light, or perhaps even a candle, pen in hand, quarreling with their imaginations how to speak what cannot be spoken. How this pre-post-modern person toiled with their ultimate concern and endowed their characters or their topic with the same passion that occasioned this act of creation at the beginning. Books are pieces of people with dreams, hopes and aspirations. The text is the collision of the author and their context…the latter of which is usually lost on us and the former of which we think to be mechanical.

An example is a recent antique book I bought by Mary Johnston. Her two volume civil war historical fiction, “The Long Roll,” & “Ceasing Fire,” (ca. 1911 & 1912) are fictional attempts to honor and boldly imagine the Confederate struggle from within a Confederate sympathy a generation after the conflict.  Long before the genre of war fiction took hold, Mary Johnston was trailblazing a new way of writing fiction inside history, a bold attempt to give historical figures an additional life.

But what makes Mary so alluring to me as I hold her books is that she was the daughter of Confederate General Joseph Johnston, the last General to make a stand against Sherman in Resaca, Ga, May 1864. Here is the child of a man that made history and was part of the deepest and darkest conflict in our nation. Here is a woman born in the South during Reconstruction, her life animated by the stories her father told her, feelings that have not yet healed from the conflict. Here is a woman that probably still shared the lost dreams, lost hopes, and lost loves of a lost cause. When I hold her book I wonder what was she thinking, why choose this scene, what she felt as she recounted these memories and stories and did she cry as she began to blend history with fiction. Was her book the process of writing her dream and justifying her affections? Were these books exploding inside her or were the words like removing the sword from Kings Arthurs stone?

The thing about old books is that they are written by old people, people now dead but who were once living…people like us. So when I see an old book, I think about the author and I ask, “what was this life that thought writing these words were worth the time, energy and sacrifice?” “What passion is here that I cannot see yet I need to feel?”

Second, I like old books because I don’t imagine we know more than their authors.

One of the most efficient lies of the Enlightenment is that of progress.

The general public thinking they have progressed past the opinions and ideas contained in these old dusty pages. Whole worldviews and animations have been lost because we are so confident that our perspective on history is the correct one. We rarely consult antique books for anything more than mantle decorations when within them one might find that our ideas are not nearly so novel. We think their opinions or stories to be irrelevant on history and we formulate our historical, fictional, scientific, or whatever opinion, absent the people who actually lived and wrote about it as it was happening.

We forget the wise words of Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

And this generality extends to fiction as well.

As any great author will tell you, fiction is always contextual, erected from a world of events that make the fiction pertinent. To read fiction as if it is created in a vacuum is to misread it and to think we generate thoughts blindly.

As George Orwell explains in his little monograph Why I Write, “Above all it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time…Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side of the grave you will never get away from the marks it has given you.”

The context of this passage is the influence of Wells’ Englishness on his work and its interaction with the world. But his point is noted: our writing is always a writing of civilization and generally the really well written fiction is always about imaginatively encountering a non-fictive problem with characters and words that are able to take the heat of criticism and enter places the author would never be able to venture.

Writings is always time-full.

Thus, time would fail us to imagine all the idiots that have commented on Evolution and never actually read Darwin or considered his context!

Time would fail us to recount all the idiot politicians that have never read a stitch of political theory such as Rousseau, Locke or Hobbes, let alone actually read American founding Fathers that read them such as Jefferson and Franklin

Time would fail to note how much anti-southern sentiment has been forged apart from reading any Southern literature from the 1840s-1880’s!

Time would fail to recount all the people that love to invoke Shakespeare because it makes them sound smart yet they have never thought deeply about any play he wrote!

And herein lays the problem: our opinions are often baseless because they are without history, fictive, non-fictive or otherwise. We have our opinions and they are informed by nothing but ourselves…as if our ideas born when they are necessarily implies they are forward progress.

But we should not be relegated to ahistorical opinions because we have old books that allow us to position ourselves historically. Old books contain sentiments against, and within which, we are able to position ourselves and participate with those that have lived and died. We are able to partake of their wisdom, read the words of lives less busy but far more passionate, and imagine a world in which entertainment, education and imagination blend together in indistinguishable ways.

Thirdly, I imagine all the people that have held the book I now I hold.

As I sit among dusty books, many of which as old as my great grandparents x5, I imagine all the hands that have sat on porches or in libraries and held this very book. I imagine why they would bother. What had the hands experienced before or after reading this that would make this book worth their time?

On a daily basis many of us are removed from the dead, they are still and alone in their graves on the outcroppings of hills we have long forgotten. Yet when I hold a book published in 1870 I am instantly in connection with someone that is no longer with us.

My hands are turning the same pages. I am holding the same covers…I am perhaps even placing my fingers in the same places on the same pages as someone who is now deceased but has come to this book for a reason, a reason that might not be dissimilar to mine. I read this old text, write and talk about it with my friends. Perhaps those who owned this book long before me did the same.

Old books are symbols of dead people, writers from which they originated and owners who can no longer hold them because they are no longer physically present.

It is this piece of people and the invisible mark they leave behind that enthralls me, captures me and churns my mind. In an eerie way I feel as if the people I will never know I now instantly know because I have shared history with them…we have shared this book. And long after I am dead someone will share this book with me even if they do not realize it.

Fourth, the smell of old books is the smell of paper that has lived.

There is nothing like walking into a room filled with books, the smell of time bursting through your senses. To stare up at the stacks of time that are lost, yet found, preserved yet forgotten, is as close as we get to an incarnate representation of human creativity. Ancient civilizations have built monuments and stones that are still reminders of their creativity, but these are now giving way to weather and time.

But words…words cannot be destroyed.

They can be torn from their sentences but they cannot be lost. They will always find their way back home no matter how much fire is heaped on the pages that contain them. Roman arches may have fallen and Greek Temples may be decimated, but the words of Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Plato and Marcus Aurelius still live.

Taking an old book into your hands, opening it up and shuffling its pages produces that distinctly old book smell…the smell of time, of aged paper, of ideas inviting you to pause and consider that the smell can take you somewhere.

Old books have lived.

They have been carried through heartbreak. They have been secured in backpacks during wartime. They have been the relief of troubled souls wandering the four corners of the earth. They have been expressions of joy and inspiration for their readers. They have slid around on the floor board of old carriages or sat in the window sills of widows who have lost their loves. They have been hid under old saloon counters waiting to be read by bartenders at the end of the night. They have even been carried by prostitutes and read after a long nights work, feeding the imaginative and intellectual need of a woman or man that had been trapped in this dark industry, the participants of which are now all dead.

Books have lived.

They have been carried by people into countless places, read for a plethora of reasons and now they are still here, speaking to us, as we hold them in the same way as history has always held them since their inception from the press.

So, I confess again, I love old books.

As I hold an old book, I hold poetry that can never be held. I hear dreams that were once only seen. I sympathize with the author and envision them standing beside me. I weep for their loss, share in their joys and continue to toil over the problems their book addresses…and I wonder how many eyes have seen these words in these very pages…stared at them like me…and wonder how much of their soul soaked up these words.

The warmth of hands that held these books long before I was here is still present…and I wonder if hands in the future will feel the warmth of my own imprint on these very books.