The Catholic Thing
Of Old Books and Old Professors Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 05 March 2013

For an academic who has spent his life urging, insisting, and demanding that students keep good books that they have read and marked, that they not sell them, and that they have their own libraries, I have suddenly experienced a soul-moving shock. Books, like Schall himself, grow old. They are heavy and difficult to transport. Any librarian or book seller, I know, could affirm these things. But somehow, with my own books, they did not age or have weight.

The fact is that books, as such, do not age or have weight. What ages and weighs are the paper on which they are written, the binding, and the covers. For a book is only accidentally a physical thing. But analogous to our bodies, it needs something to bear its reality, its soul, something to make it visible.

When Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope, he meticulously moved his substantial personal library into papal quarters so it would retain its order. Presumably something similar will happen as he moves to his new apartments. And yet, the books of a library sometimes do and sometimes do not outlast their owners’ lives.

In my later classes, my copy of Cicero’s Selected Letters, with its famous essay “On Old Age,” was rapidly falling apart, as was my copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. While I had a second copy of the former, I did not bother to purchase another copy of the latter. I just was careful not to let it fall apart before the eyes of my class.

As a physical object, a book is the product of a craft. It can hold doors open. A book, no matter what its content, can be a handsome object, something we like to hold, look at, and show off, if it is noteworthy. My 1931 two-volumes-in-one edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson was falling apart when I packed it to be trucked to California. But I did not want to part with it. It had notes in it, markings, a glowing antiquity. Not that 1931 is ancient. My sister was born in that year. Paper books, which were never intended to last too long, do fall apart more easily after a few decades.

Today, of almost every physical book, we know that an on-line version of it exists someplace. On-line books are even more ephemeral than paper books. Yet, they “exist” so long as the technology is available to re-present them to us. Today, the irony of old, heavy books is that thousands and thousands of books can be put on a disc or on a Kindle to bypass the weight problem altogether. Yet I wonder whether a human being can have the same pleasure in finding a book on-line as he did on accidentally discovering it in an old bookstore? Or can one’s own book library, lovingly collected over the years, be reduplicated by an on-line computer memory?

A certain comfort, I admit, is found in the fact that almost anything one publishes today can be found by some search-engine. We do not fear book-burners any more. They say that Martin Luther burnt Aristotle. Such an act today would be useless as almost anyone could find Aristotle on-line. Yet I do worry about the governments who control systems of information. The limits they set on what cannot be “preserved” on-line may well come to the mention of God. It already does in some places.

What is the relation between a professor and his books? Obviously, the book that he writes is likely to last longer than he does. Indeed, a book in some sense is itself immortal, provided that a mind exists to know it. Most of the great writers of our kind are already dead. We can only encounter them in their books or in their still available on-line lectures. Indeed, some think that the universities themselves should be basically on-line institutions. I would think that a radical difference exists between a professor in person teaching sixty students and the same professor teaching on-line six hundred or six thousand students. Physical presence counts for something. We are not abstractions.

Old professors exist to see that old books are passed on to generations that find more reality in the future than in the past. The past is full of real people and real events. But the future, as such, contains no actual human being. This alone accounts for the charm of history. The future is populated with imagination and promises. The past is a nexus of lived lives that betray the range of human good and ill and all in-between. Old soldiers are said not to die but to fade away. Old books? Old professors? They exist, if they are worthy, to keep what is not worth losing.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Fleshman, March 04, 2013
For me finding a book online is more pleasurable than in a used book store since I can get the book that I want--even without the serendipity factor. The one thing I would add is that government is an issue though not in the way that you think.

Americas ridiculous copyright laws which keep physical books to a large extent "locked" in decaying copies --all on the spurious grounds that the estates of often long dead authors should be able to milk creative works world without end--as well as libraries and managed databases who wish to ensure that they will never lose the right to extract a toll from whomever wishes to read what ought to be open sourced--these forces are combining to make sure that massive libraries and other vast works of scholarship remain for the most part safely in control of the gatekeepers.

But don't count on Congress to fix this anytime soon. Publishing firms are struggling job creators after all.
written by Graham Combs, March 04, 2013
Over the years I have given up most of my books from high school, college, used bookstores, booksales and my years in New York publishing. I remember many of them and miss reaching out to browse some of them. Especially works from studying English literature and the ancient classics including St. Augustine. I now use MelCAT, an extensive online library loan system here in Michigan. A wonderful source that makes books available from literally hundreds of libraries and institutions, including Catholic colleges. Still there is the occasional title I can't find there. In publishing I learned that most books are ephemeral and to be honest rightly so. Unlike my younger sister, I have yet to go Kindle or iPad. I prefer to read books. As a young boy I used to smell the new paper and ink of the cheap paperbacks I bought every week; mostly science fiction. I feel the same way about music on compact discs, other than live music, my preferred way to listen. I have only coveted one building in my life and that is the J.P. Morgan Library on Madison Avenue, not far from 200 Madison where I worked for a while. I visited the library often. Who wouldn't want such a facility close to hand. I worry too about digital interference. Google does not always act in a benign way and definitely has a political slant. On Christmas Day they display "Happy Holidays" and its ancient history going way back to the 1970s. Let's hope that the Library of Congress, the British Library and others institutions continue to collect for the common good and use. And that indpendent booksellers outlive the chains, one of which I worked for until its demise in the Fall of 2011. American readers deserve better custodians than corporations and who knows what universities value these days. As always, Thank you Fr. Schall. In college I cobbled together my own minor in the classics to personally complete my liberal arts studies and now wish I had had the chance to study under you and others I have since learned about especially in the Catholic world. Perhaps like Thomas Jefferson's, your personal library may one day be the core of some new school to preserve the best of the old.
written by Mack Hall, March 05, 2013
I'm not putting on my (metaphorical) tin-foil helmet here, Fr. Schall, but a physical book on my shelf enjoys immunity from modification for political / politically correct purposes. A book whose existence is dependent upon the cooperation of those who serve the machines is fragile indeed!
written by Ray Hunkins, March 05, 2013
Bravo, Father Schall! Your ode to the book book is a celebration of the good things associated with tradition. I marvel at your continuing ability to teach. You are a gift.
written by Tony Esolen, March 05, 2013
There's no substitute for the book.

I don't remember things as well when I read them on line, as when I read them from a book. There are probably a good dozen reasons why this is so.

Nobody re-reads a book on-line.

On line, we can find things we are looking for. In a used book store, we find things we are not looking for, and often things we had no idea ever existed. Those are much more important.

I have fifty or sixty books from the library of a dear friend who died two years ago. They are filled with his marginal notes, made shortly after his tumultuous conversion to the faith. Every time I see his old-man's handwriting, I return to the conversations we had at the restaurant where we always met.

No substitute.
written by Jacob, March 05, 2013
Kinda seems like nostalgia.

I would agree that books are a useful protection against the leftists who own the internet.

Perhaps Catholics would be wise to stop lamenting the end of books and start investing money, time and energy in the new technologies that convert so many to secularism while we complain.

They always say the Church is behind the times and they're right, just about the wrong things.
Abortion isn't new. They've been doing that since the beginning of history.
But places like Google and Wikipedia really do cause people to believe based on the manner in which they're administered (which is sadly ironic since the religious did the major early research that led to all of this modern technology).

Sure we should preserve books, they're great, but it's far more important that we engage with and reassert control of new technologies.
Saving books is great, but souls are more important!
written by Paul Rodden, March 05, 2013
I wrote a graduate paper on this very issue in 1992. Fellow grad. students asked me what all the fuss was about...
written by Maggie-Louise, March 05, 2013
"It is by a Book that we are saved."

It is a mistake to think of Christianity as a "Religion of the Book", as Judaism and Islam are often called. Christianity is a "Religion of the Word". God spoke the Word. The Book came later.

As long as I'm here, I'll wish Fr. Schall a long and grace-filled retirement.
written by Maggie-Louise, March 05, 2013
It is the Word that saves, not the Book.

written by Charles E Flynn, March 05, 2013
Thank you, Father. I keep a copy of "Another Sort of Learning" facing forward on the shelving in my bedroom, to remind me not to let the educational system interfere with my education.
written by Mary Boyer, March 06, 2013
I like the comment " remind me not to let the educational system interfere with my education", but perhaps that is because ever since reading the ISI book A Guide to Liberal Learning (when I was 14) I have found upon proper meditation any book can teach you something worth knowing (of course some books more than others). I am grateful for old professors such as Fr. Schall, and in my mind and on my shelf, Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Dickens, Austen, G.K.C, C.S. Lewis, A.N.Lindbergh, Weigel, Wojtyla and Ratzinger,...the ones I continue to revisit. I have valued the physical presence of the professors who's lectures and classes I have attended. But, even more I have valued their passion which has flowed onto the page, the internet, into the minds of other students and myself. Because the spirit of truth has been shared; it continues to live like a plant, like a tree, a forest, from generation to generation, and I in the break room at work, in the coffee shop near my apartment, under the covers before a night's sleep can find refreshment because somehow the thoughts of an old professor have conveyed what truly lasts. I am happy to remember that we are the real pages of truth.
written by stanley, March 13, 2013
In the movie, "Everything is Illuminated", it describes the one character (grandfather) that was illiterate but nevertheless took out more books from the library than anyone in the village. He couldn't read them but just liked to think about them.

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