Of Old Books and Old Professors

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, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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