An unforgettable scene outside a college book sale in Toronto the other day: an old man, an old Jewish scholar, whom I have known in passing, thirty years. He was sitting on a bench in the library porch. He was radiantly happy: one could see this from a distance. Beside him on the bench were three or four old, weathered books he had found in the sale. On his other side, a half-eaten bun rested on a paper bag; in his hands, respectively, a plastic fork, and an open tin of sardines. He was having his lunch, and celebrating his finds.
That is the whole story: one of great happiness for a man, with a crinkly face and crinkly white hair, who lives in a room somewhere, alone. He still has his health, he still has the joyous buoyancy about him, that I have encountered through the years – usually in these autumn book sales, where the donated works of former generations are laid on tables, very cheap.
Just earlier he had cornered me inside, while I was trying to look at the books. He had to know which I had selected; and quiz me on them. I did not welcome this distraction. He always does this, there is no escape, unless one gets short with him. He is lonely; longs for talk.
One year he bore news. He told me a common acquaintance – an old woman – had died. Had I heard? (Yes.) He loved her, he said; loved the old girl whom he had known since school days; wonderful eccentric, generous old thing. What was there to add?
“C’est la vie,” he said, with a look that was bottomlessly wistful. That’s life; it is how life has always been. He still had his books: the dead still speaking. And his memories, still intact.
And he, too, will be taken away. Before me? After? No one can know. All I can know, myself, is that I haven’t loved sufficiently; that the old times are gone, and cannot be retrieved. That everything happened in a terrible hurry. That love takes its time. That the myriad lives before one in youth are eventually reduced to just one life, behind.
How often the grieving have said, “I never told him how much I loved him.” But if they did love, it would have shown; it did not need to be advertised. The words, perhaps, should not have been omitted; yet words are just words, whether uttered or printed in books. They might be words of fire and power – “winged words” in the Homeric vernacular – or mere formalities. Some are crucial; most are unnecessary. Often, silence says more than words.
Our world has become very noisy. The hurry has sped up. The distractions have multiplied, the blare has increased, and everywhere I look is advertising. Even books scroll by on monitors, backlit and shining in one’s eyes. And the eyes, all around, seem elsewhere. Man, without God, scurries towards a Hell he cannot begin to imagine.
Imagination itself has been “put to work,” selling things. Walking away, from that moment of grace, when I actually saw that old scholar – saw, or “imaged” his soul – I felt invaded. Everything “normal” in the urban environment presented itself, within a short walk. Suddenly it appeared so horribly abnormal: this world of traffic and glassy towers.
A trolley rolled by, its whole surface covered with the shriek of some “lifestyle” advertisement campaign. The people riding: “packed in like sardines.” Every car on the road a commercial statement; every office lobby a showpiece of some sort. Every shop a billboard; every object “branded.” Everything “on sale,” packaged in more bold advertising.
There was never anything wrong with honest buying and selling; with what the economists call “the market.” Yet the thing itself was once confined to a location. One went to the market to buy and to sell, and then one came away from the market. And there were always, I think even in the ancient cities, modest family corner stores. But now the market follows you home.
It is true there are breaks: on the pedestrian part of a university campus, or in a large park, or a residential street filled with old-fashioned houses. Yet all these quiet places, where birdsong might be heard, are now encroached upon.
One turns for serenity to the interior of a church: I used to do this even before I was a Christian. It was, then, to escape the city crash; to be surrounded by art, in a choreography of space, with silence.
The great cathedrals of Europe are for tourists now; and the little parish churches are locked as a security measure. In America, too, the city churches are all under siege: for they are commercial blanks, and there is huge demand for condominiums, shopping malls, more parking spaces. No church can possibly compete with the metastasizing, empty glitz.
At that book sale – in that “traditional market,” open for a few days once a year – I bought some paperbacks. They were poetry texts in mediaeval French from the Paris publisher Honoré Champion, and large folio fascicles from the Monasterium Westfalorum edition of Albertus Magnus. (His Super Ethica dealing, curiously enough, with the reclamation of human moral agency.)
The sight of such paper thrills me: the plain covers, the sober typography, the promise of challenge to the God-given brain. Printed, mostly, a long time ago.
Such a relief from the screaming pulp covers and dustwrappers, of books easy to read, and not worth reading; books for people with time to “kill.” They have been with us since literacy was made compulsory; the moral, aesthetic, and intellectual tone slipping continuously for more than two hundred years; the sales pitches ever more brash.
But whatever one reads, let it be on a bench, with a bun and a tin of sardines.