I ran a hand along the tooled leather spines—Cicero, Socrates, Virgil, Ovid, Luther, Aquinas, Bacon, Calvin. Just to have the liberty of just such a room would be an education in itself. ‘The scholars must happily spend their hours here,’ I said.It’s 1660, and Bethia Mayfield, the sweet Puritan child at the heart of Geraldine Brooks’s novel, Caleb’s Crossing, is ushered into the very first library at Harvard College by a tutor turned suitor, who would very much like her to wed him. He is not unaware of the fact that whatever attraction she might feel for him is generated, in large part, out of her adoration for books. Hence, he brings her the privilege of a Harvard library visit.
Credit the Puritans with this: they loved books—the right ones, of course. Since the Bible had been opened to them by the Reformation, reading—which is even to say, education, which is to say, even, scholarship—was of monumental importance. After all, the saints’ joy and calling was opening and reading the Word. There were more educated men per capita in Boston than London in the early years of the colony. Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Puritan preacher, absolutely loved books.
I couldn’t help thinking, as I read the passage, about the fact that I am surrounded by books, books that will now have to go as we lighten our load into a retirement future. One of the unpleasant tasks before me this year is unloading whole shelves full of books, most of them books of my trade, the study of literature, and few of them—if any—worth anything at all. It will break my heart to toss them.
I remember the novelist Fred Manfred explaining how he’d gone off to Calvin College early in the 20th century with little more than the clothes on his back and his entire library—two books: the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare. He would not have thought of going away without them, so precious they were. Dr. Arlyn Meyer, another Siouxlander, told a very similar story. He owned the same two precious books--the Bible and Shakespeare—when he left for college.
The Age of the Book likely lasted from Guttenberg to the cathode ray tube. For hundreds of years, only the oral tradition could keep pace with blessings bestowed upon humanity from the pages of a book. Sometimes, Bethia Mayfield’s Puritans were called “the people of the book,” as Christians have been for several centuries. Books were invaluable.
These days, at the end of every semester, as a service, the college library lugs huge boxes into faculty office spaces and begs for the books we don’t want. Every semester, when I dump some into that box, they spill to the floor in a way that likely breaks bindings as it would backs, were they human.
But leaving them in those boxes assuages some guilt because those boxes—unlike the trash barrels just beyond the door—end up some place where eyes at least look those books over before they finally find the furnace. Will someone ever appreciate them as I have?—it’s not likely. That day is over.
If the medium is the message, then we’re certainly living in a different age. I’m punching this out on my computer, after all, and pretty soon, on my iPod, I’ll check to see if anyone’s responded. The last two books I read were hard copy, but if I were to tally the list of books I've "read" in this last year, I’m sure I would have listened to as many as I’ve paged through—and that’s not counting my Kindle.
Still even though it's not my story, there’s just something about the image of a tall, gangly farm kid, leaving for college in Michigan, lugging along two books, his entire, precious library.
I wonder if any kids today take any books at all along.
We may well have lost our taste for books, but we never lose our thirst for stories. Harry Potter made her creator the wealthiest person in England. Borders may have gone under, but Amazon will sell you millions of books that’ll arrive on your front step two days later, or just about instantaneously, if you have a Kindle.
We just need stories. We need to string things together into some kind of coherent meaning. We need for our own behavior to have context, to feel cause and effect. We want to know—and always will—whodunit and why?
I’m not sure what’ll happen to the Bible if the book ever disappears, but it’s plain as day to me that the plain-and-simple value of any given stack of pages in a “tooled, leather spine” ain’t what it once was.
But, hey, you’re reading this.
And I’m writing.
And that's reason for thanks.
*appeared originally on July 20, 2011, pre-retirement, pre-move to Alton. Alas, most of the books in that picture above are long gone.