When I worked in Burundi in the early 1980s, my house stood across the road from the local school. One day, a young man came by and introduced himself. He was a teacher at the school, a Rwandan refugee living under UN papers. He had gone to the university in the capital, but was now doubly exiled up in the hill country where we lived. He was someone, I came to realize, who was starved for conversation and a connection to the larger world. We became friends, and often chatted together in the evenings. One day, Eugene invited me over to his own small house — a hut really, but with a concrete floor. After serving me tea, he got up and said, “I want to show you my library.” He took me over to the other side of the room where, in a corner, there stood a small bookshelf, with about a dozen books on it. One by one, he proudly took them off the shelf, lovingly held them, and showed me each one. I remember three of them: a history of Africa, a collection of written folklore from Burundi, and a volume written by one of his professors at the university about agricultural policy. With each book, he had some comment that he shared, and the whole time he stood there, he beamed.
Three years later, Eugene came to America, as a refugee under my sponsorship. When I met him at Kennedy airport, he had two large duffle bags. Unpacking them at my apartment, he took out some clothes, a gift to me. And then, several of his books. “I had to leave some behind,” he explained sadly. “But these I needed to bring with me.” And he carefully handed them to me, as if passing over his patrimony.
Books are profoundly powerful entities, and many of the aspects this little story indicate something of their power, their depth, their meaning, their use: books are personal, they contain wisdom, they carry someone along, they befriend and accompany as companions, they connect with people and pasts, they remind and restore, they strengthen and correct, they embody some of the fullest elements of our life — whatever their content, whatever their origin. They uphold the movement of the human spirit as it runs through time, even into death. Books are not people; but they are, nonetheless, a kind of person.
Books are not yet going out of fashion. In fact, more books are published each year than ever before. But, in the face of a very different culture of knowledge, mostly tied to the swarming and evanescent images and accessibility of the internet, books are rapidly losing their profound role in human life, especially in the Western world of the last 1700 years. The main challenge brought by the information culture is to undermine, through the values of speed and consumption, the quite specific virtues that owning and reading books have in fact provided over the centuries. They are virtues that, if they disappear — and they are disappearing even among book owners and readers today — will seriously impoverish us, our culture, and our future.
The virtues of the book are bound up with its first significant use. It was not until the first century that the form of the book was initially invented. Unlike the standard papyrus scrolls used before then — bulky, hard to preserve, and difficult to read — the “codex” was composed of sheets of parchment (that is, dried animal skins) sewn together in such a way that each page could be turned easily, and many pages could be held together in a compact form and carried about. Apparently, the codex, although noted as a novelty, never caught on in the Roman Empire, except among one group: the Christians, and especially the Christians of the desert, the monks who began to populate the Egyptian and Syrian wilds in the fourth and fifth centuries. In these small communities, many of which demanded literacy of their members, portions of the Bible and of some other writings were inscribed on codices, which proliferated among the far-flung hermits, whose only companion, frequently, was the written word of the Scripture that they were able to carry about from cave to cave, hut to hut, and hold onto year after year. If they couldn’t read, they memorized.
Of a sudden, with the codex in these communities, the written word had become a traveling friend, imbued with personality and with permanence of relation, a meeting place of contemplation, memory, and recitation. Most of us know the subsequent history of the book, that was carried through by the monastic culture until the invention of the printing press. But it is important to realize that the way the first books functioned has never really changed, whatever the technology. That value is part and parcel of the literary culture that is still ours, though now slipping away.
Let me outline several characteristics of the book, characteristics that have grown us as a people, have given a kind of fertile hope to the human mind, and have sustained the uncommon survivors like my friend Eugene, as well as the more commonly satisfied inhabitants of the West. These are the characteristics and gifts that our wholesale lurch into the information culture is certainly bound to weaken, to our detriment.
Books represent a kind of friendship, through a living word, with persons distant, thoughts shared, and wisdom preserved. Benedict Labre, an 18th-century French saint who wandered the roads of Europe as a beggar, carried with him a small sack containing three books: the Bible, a Breviary, and a small treatise on the spiritual life by a Spanish writer, Luis de Granada. By day and night, sitting alone in the dust or on a rock beneath a tree, Benedict would deepen his friendship with Luis in that small volume, and through that companionship, he would be led into the knowledge of what, to him, were the deeper truths of his vocation and destiny.
I have had my friends, as well, within the books I have taken with me, carried about, by bedside or through moves, or on journeys. For several years as a teenager, it was Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazanztakis; later, as a young adult, it was a volume of poetry by Stephen Crane. And when I sold it for another edition, newer and fuller, I bid farewell to someone beloved.
The friendship of a book — which, of course, embodies the writings of a person, an author, but also, in its palpable presence, is itself a part of their communication — is analogous to human amities. There is joy in discovering such a friend in a new and unexpected book; there is thirst and delight in searching for a friend, once known, now lost. For years I tried to find a book of poetry by a wonderful though rarely read English writer, Alice Meynell, whom I had only met briefly in anthologies. When I finally discovered that book on a shelf of an old store, my heart took a leap of thanksgiving and eager expectation: the friend I was looking for had come to call.
The friends we keep mold us; they make our world, and that world becomes our own. How vivid still is the living room bookshelf of my parents when I was growing up: I remember to this day the volumes that were arranged upon it, which I looked at every day as a child, each representing something of my mother and my father’s own life and spirit: Sophocles’ plays; a book by Djilas, a Yugoslavian dissident during Tito’s era; D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love — now there was an invitation! But they were all inviting in their way, and just growing up in the presence of their titles molded me to their loves.
With the friendship of books comes a path to knowledge, and with that comes intimacy and contemplation. And from being able constantly to return, like the Desert Father or Benedict Labre, to a written friend, day after day, or year after year, comes revelation, just as with a person in the flesh. How long it sometimes takes to understand someone, and especially someone whom one loves! The presence and friendship of a book, in a similar way over time, yields, not information, but new vision and wonder.
I have been working on a number of friendships for a long time. Several are piled up next to my bed. Some return again and again. But this is absolutely necessary if there is to be any growth in knowledge, truth, and even love. One of the first used books I ever bought, at age 14, was a volume of Longfellow’s poems (which I still own, though it is now too fragile to take up often). Returning to it in my 20s, I was disappointed with my previous choice of reading. But turning to him again, years later, I found a man I only dimly recognized before, with greater joy and clearer beauty than I had thought possible. Friendships, if they are that, are worth keeping, because they change us as we are opened to them. Books, too, are worth keeping if we let them do spadework within our minds and hearts over the years.
Of course, to grow into deeper friendships does take time and proximity. This is what some philosophers have called the virtue of “leisure,” not in today’s sense of economically-supported indolence, but of disciplined openness to sitting with someone, listening and conversing, for the sake of the truth and of light. Nothing could be further from the information culture’s valuing of speed and efficiency, than hanging around someone’s words, for years if possible. This is the virtuous “leisure of the book.”
Books, as I said, “hang around.” They hang around in their friendship, in the knowledge that friendship opens; but they also hang around in their tangible presence as “things.” In this — if we allow them, if we do not throw them away as soon as we close their cover — in this, they project themselves into our lives, even from a bookshelf, or a bedside table, or a past. By addressing us in this way, just by being there in front of us, in our rooms and homes, they can call us back to something we have often lost or forgotten.
I remember, a few years ago, looking at old college course books, down in my father’s basement, that had been taken out of storage boxes from long ago when he moved. They were textbooks, some of which were his, mine, my mother’s, even. Seeing them, some of which I recalled, others of which I had forgotten, raised striking questions, aimed at me from the past and now ranged before my eyes: Who am I? I studied all these things, I read them, I let them influence me — who am I now? What have I learned, after all these years? Have I been true? How have I changed? Was it good? Our old books ask us these questions, just by being with us. There sits, in a corner of my office shelves, a book that I bought when my wife and I worked in the inner city of Cleveland 30 years ago. The book is on race and education. At the time, it felt and was so pertinent to my life — and not mine only. Now, every time I lift my eyes from my desk and note its binding, and it stares back at me from its obscure upper shelf, I realize what I have forgotten and abandoned. The book itself, just being there, acts as both a condemnation and an exhortation.
This is what makes the character of the bookstore, or even the library, so challenging and rich, and what makes online shopping and online searching so thin. That is, in browsing through books that we do not seek by name, but that we simply come upon, and open up, and leaf through, we are brought face to face with what we never expected. This is a moral gift: if you know what you are looking for — and just about all you can do online is try to find something you already know — you will rarely grow or learn or be corrected.
For a long time, I had a policy of only buying books that were less than five dollars (I’ve had to change that amount over the years, as with bottles of wine). But the point was this: I deliberately priced myself out of new bookstores, and forced myself to buy only what I happened to find in a second-hand shop. And that was rarely what I hoped to find. It is a policy, I like to tell myself, that honors providence and challenge. If I come upon something interesting, whatever it is, then, I tell myself, I am meant to read it! Perhaps tapping through Wikipedia associations can do this too, but I doubt it.
Books — the books that we own, share, place on our shelves, carry with us in our packs and on vacations and journeys, books that we return to, pass on, stumble upon later, books with all these lines of tangible proximity, closeness, life together — books, more than anything in our culture, provide us a wider context for our intellectual spirits, give us, in other words, a “world” that survives and upholds us as social creatures. Libraries are our pasts, and thus they mark our character. The books they contain, and the books we retain, tie us to others, the living and the dead.
One of the most profound marks of this is the inscriptions we find, and decreasingly provide ourselves, at the front of books. It is deeply moving to me to buy an old book and look at what someone wrote in it a hundred years ago: “to Elizabeth, with a father’s love.” (Inscriptions are out of fashion today, presumably, because few people hold on to books; and books are given less and less among friends.) This is but a sign of the fact that, most especially, books embody the genealogy of our thinking and visions, a line of connection that we can identify ourselves within and pass on to others. I urge people to give their libraries to their children or friends; just as I urge people to let their book collections grow and evolve according to the freedom and care with which we approach the very basic meanings of our lives.
I am not a technophobe, intent on resisting new information delivery systems. I own a Kindle; I use Internet Archive. These have their place, no doubt. I just hope that their place is limited, that’s all. Furthermore, as a Christian I am deeply aware that the frame of our faith given in the Scriptures is, though now mostly written and bound in a book, something whose “words” are metaphysically far richer and humanly constructive than what we get in a printed volume. I am a “bibliophile,” not because I am technologically reactionary or graphically reductive, but because I love the world of human beings in which I am blessed to have a place. To mitigate or lose altogether the bookish framework of this world is, quite simply, to deplete ourselves. I have sometimes wondered, when I am sent away, as it were, like my friend Eugene, to a foreign land and a distant existence, what I will take out of the bag that contains the sum of my life. What books will I lay upon my bed? Will I have any “friends” left who have accompanied me on this part of my human journey, or will I still be seeking a server and a network to plug into?
The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.