The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 20, 2019

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Last Things: Libraries without Readers
James V. Schall, S.J. - 09/17/09
King's Library
Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.”
—Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” Prefaces to the Works of the English Poets, 1779
“What point in countless books and libraries whose catalogues their owner cannot scan in a lifetime? The student is loaded down, not instructed, by the bulk; it is much better to give yourself to a few authors than to stray through many.”
—Seneca, “On Tranquillity,” d. A.D. 65


Two new and handsome buildings on university campuses that I have visited recently have been opened. They call themselves “information centers” on the lettering of their outside walls. Such buildings were once called libraries. The change in wording is not without significance. Libraries were not just full of “information.” Information is not thought, let alone truth. As much information it is in fact chaos unless a mind order it.

I was in the university library here at the end of the summer. Though it was a quiet season, it struck me how few students were in it reading. Those who were there, as in the case of more busy periods, seemed mostly to be using online materials which they brought with then into the library on their own computers. Some books were still visible but they appeared mostly to be auxiliaries useful for something else.

Somewhere I heard recently that book-libraries will soon give way to such “information centers.” Actual books will be stored away for reference in some Costco-type pavilion, or all books will be gathered in a central place like the Library of Congress for historical or reference purposes. The “paperless” and “wireless” society has won, though it does still seem to produce lots of paper and wires in the process.

One might suggest that this change from book to machine is progress, or perhaps regress. After all, books, as widely distributed, bound pages, are a relatively late invention. Those who study the Bible (the Book) and folklore tell us that these “books” first existed as experience and memory, as oral narrations, handed on by word of mouth and song. Written and published books are modern. We now have so many kinds of online books, sources, and devices that we can practically carry around a whole library in our hip pockets.

Anyone who has carted books around soon realizes how heavy they are. A friend just gave me a very handsome two volume, hardbound set of St. Thomas’ Quaestiones Disputatae, de Potentia Dei. They weigh a little over four pounds. The foundations of buildings that hold thousands and thousands of books have to be reinforced. Why waste paper? Put everything online! Actually, most recently written things are already online. Except for older tomes, we do not first acquire a printed book, and then put it online. It is written online and later printed. We can usually read it online, or in print form, or, often, even listen to it on a disc or tape. Most famous books of any stature are now online somewhere in various languages. What is contained in books has in effect, like our thoughts themselves, become weightless.

Writing critically in 1987, on the “Great Books” programs, Frederick Wilhelmsen concluded: “We no longer live in a book-dominated culture; to treat our students as though we did is to violate their very psychic structure. Today we enter a new kind of Middle Ages (or oral communication), but Great Books people still absent-mindedly behave as though they were living in the eighteenth or nineteenth century.” [1] Wilhelmsen’s point was that philosophy exists not in books but in conversation. It must be in our souls and spoken, understood, before one another. Plato himself, in his Seventh Letter, had worried about the fleetingness of written words, about their inability always to be pinned down to what they were intended to mean. Long debates over the possibility of translating one book accurately into another language reflect this concern.


Granting all of these caveats, I still belong to the circle of those who love books. I think that that, while, in a pinch, they can be “replaced” online, it is still best to keep them handy. I cannot help but agree with Seneca about the catalogues of books that we will never get around to reading in our lifetime. “It is much better to give yourself to a few authors than to stray through many.”

This view, of course, means that some books are more worth reading than others, without denying that one can probably learn something from any book. Anyone who has not read at least one book that moves his soul probably has no soul. Yet I know the illiterate have souls and often experiences in themselves the grounds for any written word.

Recently a man in our Community died. He was a good scholar. He had collected quite an impressive library over the years. It contained all sorts of books. After his death, his books were offered to the various university libraries in case they needed them or did not have them. After this offer, they were given to any of us who might want any of them. Personal libraries come to an end with the lives of those who put them together in the first place. The books, or lack of same, on one’s shelves at point of death probably reveal as much about the man as anything else, except perhaps his letters (or e-mails?).

I myself am at a stage in life where my main object is to get rid of books, of which I too have many, rather than to collect any more. If one is not careful he has to become more of a library cataloguer, as Seneca implied, than a reader of books, which is where the fun really is. When I went to my colleague’s remaining books, I sternly said to myself, “I will not acquire any more books.”

Momentarily, however, I did weaken my resolve. I selected a paperback edition of Robert Frost’s poems. A friend had been citing, to me, unknown Frost poems, and I did not have a copy. Also I found a small book of the poems of William Blake, and a copy of Josef Pieper’s The End of Time; though I am sure that I already have it, I could not stand the thought of letting such a good book just sit there.

Contrary to Seneca, I think it a good idea for a young man or woman to accumulate books. I like being surrounded by books. I recommend to students to haunt used bookstores, to be delighted at what they find there. They are to exercise what Chesterton called the “romance of thrift” in seeing what fine items they can buy for less money than it takes to go to a rock concert. I like to have something on lots of varied topics.

Our minds are made for the whole. One must be careful also not to become one’s own librarian, which is what concerned Seneca. There is a difference between a book collector, to whom we often owe a debt for keeping fine books that no one else knows about, and a book reader. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being both a collector and a reader of what one collects. Books are a sign that we are aware of the existence of more than ourselves.

The main task of a young man or woman is to read something for the first time. A time in my life came when I began to reread books I already had, rather than just reading new ones. The latest books can be good, but they are not usually the best, even when you write them yourself, though one is usually reluctant to admit this. C. S. Lewis remarks, in An Experiment in Criticism, that, as we become older and have taught many courses, we begin to find that we read the same book maybe twenty or thirty or forty times in our lives. We find, in so doing, that we are always learning something that we did not see before. In the thirtieth-seventh reading of Aristotle or Cicero or the Gospel of John, we find something that we missed in the previous thirty-six readings. Yet in each of the previous thirty-six readings, we learned something also that we did not see in earlier readings.

When this learning something new after the thirty-seventh time happens, we know that, yes, this is a “great” book. At one time, I would have doubted this continual refreshment and been skeptical about it, but no more. I recently reread Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. It was a wondrous book when I first read it, even more the second time. Thus, I like to say to students, “Both you and your books exist in time. One of life’s delights is finally to understand what you missed seeing the first ten times you saw something, or, indeed, someone.” When this coming to see happens, we do, as Johnson said, seek companions to tell them about it.


Now, I have nothing against Milton’s Paradise Lost. I know people who swear by it. The losing of Paradise is a topic on which we can never meditate sufficiently. If we do not know the account of the Fall in Genesis, we will hardly understand ourselves or what we are up against in living. Samuel Johnson, that great man, was not particularly moved by Milton’s famous book. I like Johnson’s idea that we should “peruse” a work for pleasure rather than as a “duty.” The “Great Books” are often pursued as “duties.” University curricula are set up as if that were the student’s main concern.

“Duty” is not a bad word, much better than the word “right” usually. What would a “right” to a great book mean unless it was something that first delights us? But I think that the finest things exist beyond duties or rights. They are in the category of gifts. These finer things are what Aristotle called things “for their own sake.” Books are still the things that are most likely to get us to those things that are “for their own sakes” and from there to how we ought to live and what there is to praise.

William Faulkner’s November 1953 letter from New York to Joan Williams concerned the fact that to accomplish anything, we must actually act or make, to use Aristotle’s terms. “These people you like and live among,” Faulkner admonished her, “don’t want the responsibility of creating. That’s what I meant by sophomores: they are like people still in school, irresponsible parasites, who now don’t even have to pass courses in order to stay there. They go through the motions of art—talking about what they are going to do over drinks, even defacing paper and canvas when necessary in order to escape the responsibility of living.” [2]

These are great phrases, “the responsibility of creating” and “the responsibility of living.”

Yet, I think, they are not as great as Johnson’s distinction between duty and pleasure. I am, I confess, still much taken by Plato’s “unseriousness of human affairs” and the reason for it. There are affairs that are greater than human and we are created for these latter. But we live our passing lives in the world in order that we might finally behold them.


This essay is entitled “Libraries without Readers.” The origin of reading rooms in libraries was that books were so expensive, rare, and fragile that they could not leave the library to protect them. Many people thus read the same book in the same place. Today we, the many people, have our own copy of the same book. We do not all read the same physical book in the same reading room. We must call this abundance of books a happy circumstance. We can read just about anywhere any time of day or night. The question is not “Do we have the book?” but “Do we have the time and incentive to read it?”

Two books have always been useful to me to make these points. They are Louis L’Amour’s The Education of a Wandering Man, which a friend once gave me, a book I had never heard of before. L’Amour, the famous western novelist, whom I began to read after that gift, would list the books he read each year. This listing is not a bad idea. It proved to be L’Amour’s real education. He explained how one could find time to read in a busy life, how it is a good idea to have a book with us most of the time. We should not become boorish with no time for others, but there is a delight in reading, as Johnson said. Besides, we need something to talk about.

The second book is A. D. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life.This book was written in French back in the 1920s. It explains how anyone can devote his life to thinking and reading even if busy and concerned, like Martha, “with many things.” Sertillanges speaks of taking notes, getting up early, and discipline. In effect, he frees us to know not just ourselves but what is usually even more exciting—namely, knowing what is not ourselves. We want what is not ourselves to become ourselves. This is why we have minds. Put another way, what we are denied by our physical finiteness is given back to us in our thinking, if we take the trouble to reflect on the things that are.

I do not think that there is no “chore” aspect to reading. It is like any habit; it takes effort to learn it so well that we do not even notice that we have it. And of course, the purpose of life is not simply to read a lot of books. It is not even to read a lot of good or great books. But the chances of our knowing what it is all about without the help and inspiration of books we read are minimal. And here I am talking about reading, and not singing or dancing and the other things like praising that Plato said is what we are really made to do.


Finally, as I think about it, I doubt whether most of us do our best reading in libraries, though some do. We think of Karl Marx reading away in the British Museum. We read books because we seek to know the truth of things. After a while, we suspect that the neat “truths” that we find in books we read all belong together, that our reading is not a chore but an adventure.

Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry tells us, was the town philosopher-barber and a reader of books. He was also a listener to music. As a young man he enrolled in the University of Kentucky. “I read in the textbooks that were assigned, and I also went to the library and checked out the books the professors talked about or recommended, and read them. Or read about them—some were dull.” Such a passage always reminds me of Chesterton’s remark that there is no such thing as a dull subject, only a dull person.

But I am sympathetic with Jayber. “I read in my room at night, when I wasn’t out prowling. And some nights I went over to the library and read there,” he tells us, with a familiarity that makes us realize that Wendell Berry taught at the University of Kentucky. “The library had beautiful rooms lined with books, and tables for reading and writing. And there was a perfectly lovely room called the Browsing Room, with shelf upon shelf of books, and several tall windows looking out into the trees and easy chairs with reading lamps, and sofas. It was far and away the finest, most comfortable room I had ever seen in my life, and I loved to sit in it.” We can just see it. It seems odd, even blasphemous, however, that this elegant library room was called the “Browsing” Room and not the “Reading” Room, as if, in it, we were only looking around and not pondering deeply. .

Too, I am sympathetic with Samuel Johnson. We are glad some books are not longer than they are, but one wonders if we ever want the Lord of the Rings or the Brothers Karamazov to end. This is true of Dickens, too, though I recently read Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. The novel ends, in an outpost along the Amazon, with the hero being forced to reread all of Dickens out loud again and again. This reading became nothing less than the image of hell. Endings, like life, are what it is all about.

And finally, Seneca. It is better to “give yourself to a few authors than to stray through many.” Existence is not reading but living. Yet the world itself is “word” oriented. It not only needs to exist but it needs to be spoken into the existence of our active minds

To conclude, Aquinas’s answer to the seventeenth objection of the third question, on Creation, in the De Potentia Dei, reads: “Universum quod est a Deo productum, est optimum respectu eorum quae sunt, non tamen respectu eorum quae Deus facere potest.” Why would I end an essay entitled “Libraries without Readers” with a Latin quotation that means, roughly, “The universe that is produced by God is the best with respect to the things that actually exist, but nonetheless not with respect to those things that God is able to make”? It is because there are probably things to know even when we know all the things in our world that are given to us to know.

Note well, I read this passage in a book. I did not figure it out by myself, though I understood it when I read it. It hints that all the books in the world may not be enough for us to know what is worth knowing. I believe the last lines in the Gospel of John say much the same thing. Perhaps this realization, too, is why we have libraries.

[1] Frederick Wilhelmsen, “Great Books: Enemies of Wisdom?” Modern Age, Summer/Fall, 1987, 331.

[2] Selected Letters of William Faulkner edited by Joseph Blotner (New York: Vintage, 1978), 357.

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