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(Spectrumbot) #1

“Buy truth, and do not sell it;

buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.”

—Proverbs 23:23

When I buy books, real books, the kind that fill the palm and give off the faint scent of forests and ferns, I most often buy used books. To put a noble purpose to it, I see it as a matter of providing a second or third life to a being whose greatest delight is to be itself in service to others. Used books, like used houses, contain quiet discoveries: a penciled note in the margin or a passage scored in red, with an exclamation point next to it. What emotions did it stir? What memories did it bring up?

I have a volume of philosophy, picked up in a second-hand bookshop in North Hollywood, which has a blue-inked stamp on the flyleaf: “If found, please return to —,” with a name and an address in Los Angeles. Was its presence in that shop evidence of abduction or betrayal? Was it offered up in the dissolution of a love affair by a woman who wouldn’t stoop to throwing out a book with the potato peelings and coffee grounds? Or the New English Bible I found, inscribed, “To the most wonderful mother in the world. We love you — Rhonda, Carol and Ron,” given on Mother’s Day, 1970, and so lightly used that the pages had to be parted with two hands and a puff of breath.

I am reading now, No Other Book: Selected Essays of Randall Jarrell, which includes a bookmark made out of a horoscope from Sunday, March 7, 1993 (birthdate of Piet Mondrian and Daniel J. Travanti!), that advises me to “Shower family members with affection. Playing the hermit role keeps you trapped in an isolation tank. Spread the gospel of goodwill and exuberance.” It also suggests that I take up sports “like cycling, tennis or golf.” But since I am not a Taurus, perhaps that would be unwise.

For such books, received by others and then forgotten, I give a safe and warm home, an active life, the assurance of a deep and appreciative relationship, and the promise of continued service when I have passed on.

I buy used books, not simply because I love books, but because their histories trace connections back to the authors who wrote them, whose imagination and diligence while writing were often frustrated and thwarted, but who somehow followed a lantern of discovery deep into an unknown country. And there are sometimes geological layers of comments and annotations to decipher, connections to those who cherished them.

So when I find one that gives no evidence of having been pored over, hefted, carried along, returned to, and in a word, loved, there’s a residue of sadness for the writer who labored over this work, perhaps for years, before releasing it into the wild. Once out of her hands her book faced the world alone. Maybe it was sought for with open hands, or merely opened, flicked through, and replaced with a sigh. Maybe it flourished later with meanings that its author could not see, a gift extended.

Some of my books have been with me for most of my life. One of my treasured collections of poetry, The Major English Romantic Poets: Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, I bought new in 1967 for ninety cents, 715 pages of poetry so impassioned as to blow open my imagination and enlarge the regions of my heart. Another one, Modern Poets, introduced me to Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and many others. I was searching for wisdom, although I did not think of it in that way.

In the tales of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, the heights and depths of kings and battles in Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking People, and in the terrors and stoic courage of Camus’ The Plague, there was a revelation of what Randall Jarrell calls “the Wisdom of the World which demonstrates to us that the Wisdom of the World isn’t enough.”[1] Jarrell wrote that about one of Robert Frost’s poems, “Provide, Provide,” which, he said, gives us the minimum case for morality, but with a beauty and conviction that is far from minimal.

It was the conviction that beauty — seen, heard, and above all, rendered in language — is an indispensable element of wisdom, that drew me on in the search.

I was, most probably, not so much in rebellion against my strict but loving upbringing, as I was uneasy in my place, shifting and stretching, unable to locate my magnetic north, but unwilling to stop looking. When the body needs salt, it finds it; when the spirit craves awe it pauses at the roadside shrines. Our restlessness rings about us like an unresolved chord.

At sixteen, the world appeared absurd to me. Beautifully so, but absurd, nonetheless. As I write, it is fifty-one years to the day that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, the last in a trinity of public figures whose lives, at that time, gave me reason to hope for a new order in the world.

Over against this was my dutiful play in the fields of the Lord and my willingness to be haunted by the Jesus of the gospels.

The world was absurd, intuitively understood, because the allocation of resources and wealth were both capricious and cruel. Not only that, the burdens that so many bore simply by accident of birth and race, could not be justified or accounted righteous in any universe I wanted to be a part of. As I passed the brown backs of laborers bent over the vines in the Napa Valley, I wondered how it was that I was blessed to flourish in the California sun, while thousands of miles away a little Vietnamese girl and her brother ran naked and screaming down a road, their flesh consumed by napalm, as the sky behind them boiled with clouds hellishly dark? “There but for the grace of God,” said some with a shudder. But that was blasphemy, an homage to a god even smaller and more ignorant than the systems that perpetuated it.

Therefore, entirely arbitrarily, due to no merit on my part, I had the luxury to be surrounded by choices, to have time and safety and the means to look ahead to college. Again, at sixteen it seemed absurd (and still seems so today), but the purest response could only be to use those choices wisely and well.

Albert Camus was an early and lasting influence. I shared his love for the sun, the sea, the night. “But these are gods of enjoyment,” he says, in Lyrical and Critical Essays, “they fill one, then they leave one empty.”[2] Borrowing the faith of others, I agreed, but not for the same reasons as Camus. Such emptiness, the default position of the church made clear, could only be filled by a personal relationship with Christ. I wasn’t so sure. Couldn’t one love this Earth for itself, this sea, these stars? Wasn’t glorying in the creation also worshipping the Creator? Camus’ heaven basked solely beneath the sun — he held himself to an austere code of honesty — but he retained a wistful awareness, it seemed to me, of a transcendence he could feel, but would not be reconciled to. I believed it but could feel it only faintly.

Camus was seventeen when he knew he would be a writer. Describing the gradual awareness of this possibility, he writes:

“Something, someone was stirring dimly within me, longing to speak. Reading one book, hearing one conversation, can provoke this rebirth in a young person. One sentence stands out from the open book, one word still vibrates in the room, and suddenly, around the right word, the exact note, contradictions resolve themselves and disorder ceases.”[3]

For Camus, the book that gave him the courage to write what he lived was Jean Grenier’s Les Iles. For me? Well, I suppose some of my contradictions began to resolve themselves through the poets of Isaiah — all three of them — although at the time I only knew of one, and the Gospel of John, that mystical and earthy portrait of the Jesus of signs and wonders. In almost any translation or version, they held for me language that transcended my experience while keeping me rooted in this world. The Bible itself was a library, or better, a bookshop of well-used books, holding the histories of millions, and containing layers of connections and annotations and memories there for all to ponder.

Surprisingly, Camus (referring to Grenier) says, “For it is indeed lucky to be able to experience, at least once in one’s lifetime, this enthusiastic submission to another person.” He draws up the image of the master and the disciple, a confrontation which becomes a dialogue for life. “In the end, the master rejoices when the disciple leaves him and achieves his difference, while the latter will always remain nostalgic for the time when he received everything and knew he could never repay it.”[4]

Camus did repay it, however, in the ways he inspired and mentored people like me. Although I took a different, but in some ways parallel path to his, we were both searching for wisdom.

I am still stumbling along, trying to commit discipleship. In the books which the Spirit and serendipity lead me to, I find traces of wisdom well worth the price of experience.

Notes & References:

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at darmokjilad@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Cesar Viteri on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9677

(Robert Lindbeck) #2

Thanks @bearcee. Second hand book shops are the best. How many times have we ut dow a book in a book shop, or not switched TV channels because the smmary was not engaging. We never know if we will be a person’s first look at Christ or their only look at Christ. Our back page should be as engaging and truthful as Christ.


(Thomas J Zwemer) #3

My English Four in the academy was taught by Mrs. Burman, the wife of Elder Burman for which the University is named. she taught me the love of literature. We were on an attack transport for thirty days.Our job was to carry sides of beaf up a gang way to the kitchen. A side of beaf weighed About 250 pounds. I weight 160. The guys took pity on me and sent me on silly Trips like getting striped ink.or s pail of electricity. I would say you bet, I will be right back… I would go to the ships library and get a book of poetry or Shakespeare and silt on the deck and read. when the shift was over and the guys were playing cards I would come back and say, I guess the ship doesn’t carry that… They would laugh But I have a host of memorized Shakespeare et al.


(Elmer Cupino) #4

I once attended a medical convention where a presenter talked about electronic medical records. As a side, he showed how to digitalize books and it dawned on me that as I approach my 70s, I wouldn’t have that much time until I meet my creator and that I should spend every moment reading and rereading my books so I have begun to digitize my books to my iPad. I’ve ripped about 300 books to digitize. Another 500 books to go…

So everywhere I go I take my iPad and occupy even every idle time reading books at my convenience.


(Barry Casey) #5

I know what you mean. I have hundreds on my iPad, but I do love my real books. Still, it’s a pleasure to have a portable library at my fingertips.


(reliquum) #6

Barry, i barely need read the whole title to know who splashed the ink.

The things you write of resonate like the muted hooves of distant horses on a cobblestone alley in the valley town below. This particular one, even the moreso.
There is something indescribably subtle yet unmistakably evocative about old bookstores, with the stacks of once proud Life magazines leaning against the back door, the glossy plates dissected from a thousand leaves, the jaunty paperbacks jeering from the table of card and board. I pick one up, and open up to the frontmatter, seeking that elusive signed pre-first edition, rifle the pages seeking those penciled personal notes, and glance for the criss-crossed wire and chain lines. The book speaks-it is a title my longest friend recommended for me, and my heart skips a beat in applause of their treasured memory. There is no better friend than he who knows a person and suggests you read a book which moved him. Reverently I place that book on the top of the teetering tower of books I hold…

…thank you for this! I too have books I bought as a searching seven year old boy-I have a first edition Call of the Wild still! However, i have not yet migrated to the ebooks-seems sacrilegious, or worse!


(Steve Mga) #7

Electronic Reading is OK.
But I still prefer a book I can hold in my hand, and place a book mark
where I want to continue later.
I like one I can underline, write in the margin of the page, or add thoughts from other
authors to enlarge the thought.
Used books are OK. I purchase them on Amazon from various places. A couple
actually came from England. Sometimes I find Goodwill is a good place to
patronize.


(George Tichy) #8

When I moved to the US I left over 1K books behind. I felt like my brain was left behind… literally!I basically gave them away to friends, the more technical I actually sold for a low price. I then reconstructed part of my brain here… even partly electronically this time… LOL I love ebooks.
(If anyone knows of any “used ebooks” store, please let me know… :innocent: :sunglasses: :roll_eyes:)


(Robert Lindbeck) #9

If I really like a particular book, I will buy it in hard copy - the real thing. Not because I want to keep it but because I want to give it away. The best books are those you want your friends to have. Write in the front “I have enjoyed this book so much I want others to benefit from its wisdom. When you have finished reading, if you feel the same way pass it on. If not please return.” Of the six or seven books I have sent out this way, none have been returned.


(George Tichy) #10

That’s exactly what I did years ago with a collection of certain red boox … :wink:
I have been thinking “out of the boox” since… :rofl:


(Barry Casey) #11

Timo, thank you for your eloquent words and evocative images. Yes, used bookshops are holy places, and the fact that friends can recommend books to us that we can find and enjoy, make such places even more special. I can’t help thinking of books as sentient beings, longing to be opened and enjoyed. May you be successful in your explorations and journeys into those fair lands!


(Carrol Grady`) #12

I’ve never read any Camus, but now I will have to! And at 83, there are not that many more days to be reading. Thank you for a beautiful story!


(David) #13

What a beautiful essay! Your love of books is contagious. I too love books. They are the distillation of someone’s labor of love and passion. We are so blessed to be able to read and to obtain such treasures so cheaply. Without books I would not be who I am today. We are spoiled to have Abebooks, Amazon, and worldcat at our fingertips.


(Steve Mga) #14

Used Books through Amazon provide so many dealers to choose from. Some
include postage in price, for others postage is extra.
Many Religious Authors will discuss topics that SDA writers will not touch.
So one HAS to go outside of the ABC – Book and Bible House – to get books
worth reading.