Confessions of an (unrepentant) book hoarder

I confess. I am an addict. I am a hoarder. I cannot give up books.

At the end of each semester, a book distributor tours my department, asking if we have any books we would like to donate. Rather than reselling the books, he gives them to area seminaries whose libraries could use them and then to a Baltimore book exchange, where passersby, usually students, freely deposit or take books.


As I build my pile for donation, I face my usual problem. The mountain of books overflowing in my office has reached the ceiling and now requires a double column. It is easy enough to toss this year’s collection of unsolicited textbooks, self-published poetry and accounts of weeping statues.

I confess. I am an addict. I am a hoarder. I cannot give up books.

But after that, it becomes painful. The Fagothey textbook on ethics is outdated, but it was the book I used in the first course I taught during my regency at Wheeling College. That stays. I could ditch Chess for Dummies. I bought it 20 years ago in an effort to revive my long-dormant chess game. It has not yet been revived, but somehow I think books on chess are exactly the sort of thing students should see in a professor’s office. My doggy-eared set of Folger Library paperback editions of Shakespeare’s plays is coming unglued (the “Macbeth” is illegible due to an overturned coffee pot in 1994), but I started that collection in 1965, when we studied “Romeo and Juliet”as freshmen in high school. My Ronald Knox translation of the Bible is certainly dated. It leans too much on the Vulgate and uses an overly Latinate prose. But this leather-bound edition with gilded pages is still the jewel of my library. It was a gift from my Uncle Jackson, who admired fine binding, typography and illustration as much as he revered biblical truth.

Once I had entered the Jesuits, my parents and I began an annual ritual during my Christmas home visit. Before the end of the visit, my mother would take me to the basement where I had left a pile of books from my school days. I was gently urged to take the books I wanted and let my parents donate the rest to charity. After my ordination to the priesthood, the pleas became more urgent but I would only take a dozen books, assure my parents that I would be back soon and ask them not to remove anything before my next visit. After my parents died, we needed to prepare our home for selling. I finally waded through the pile and reluctantly consigned the lion’s share to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Students should learn to love the physical book itself.

The triage turned into an archeological morning, afternoon and evening. On the first level was my college life: all the print enthusiasms of an English major, a student journalist and a late-1960s activist. The paperbacks from my favorite course, on the metaphysical poets, were there, annotated in my cramped handwriting: Donne, Crashaw, Vaughan, Marvell and Herbert with the squat Anglican country church on the cover. Almost completely faded, a stapled Xeroxed copy of the Jesuit Robert Southwell’s poetry turned up. (I had received my sudden vocation to enter the Jesuits the first night I read Southwell.) Newsletters by I. F. Stone taught me to forsake journalistic scoops and to focus on actually reading laws, regulations and congressional testimony; evidence of political corruption was free for the asking.

I also found a well-thumbed paperback, The Flame of Love, by a Carthusian. I had purchased it for five cents when it was lying, quite water-damaged, in a barrel outside a bookstore in Philadelphia. Since I was entering the Jesuits in a few weeks, I thought I should try some sophisticated spiritual reading. When I started the book, I noticed that there was an inscription on the inside cover: “To Angela, I’m sorry things didn’t work out. But I will always pray for you. Would you have the kindness to pray for me in the years to come? Rick.” The page annotations in blue ink (by Angela?) underlined the passages that called for deeper repentance. The message seemed to be: “Before you enter the novitiate, repent, sinner, and make a good general confession.” And just who were Rick and Angela?

On the next level, course books from high school days mingled with my own avant-garde collection: e.e. cummings, Ionesco, Sexton, Lowell, Albee, Brecht. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy was the rage among a group of us as juniors one summer. What adolescent doesn’t want to control the future of the universe? The fad books were there: Speed Read in Ten Days, How to Draw Great Landscapes and Teach Yourself Swahili.

The book is a quotidian miracle.

The last but largest layer went back to grade school. There were plenty of Hardy Boys novels and sports biographies. But there was also a series of “classics for children” published by Grosset & Dunlap. One new volume would arrive each month. This was my introduction to Charles Dickens, James Fennimore Cooper, Hans Christian Andersen and my personal favorite, George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind. For many years I would reread this fantasy and relive the adventures of Diamond as he glided from banquets to shipwrecks on the icy back of the wind.

At the very bottom, I discovered two of my lost treasures: deluxe editions of Kidnapped and Treasure Island, with the color illustrations by N. C. Wyeth. They were a birthday gift from Uncle Jackson. The illustrations shaped my childhood vision of what adventure, fear and struggle looked like. Years later, when I visited the Wyeth museum in the Brandywine Valley, I stood for an hour in front of N. C. Wyeth’s original paintings for the book illustrations. I had found an old, mesmerizing friend.

Recently we had a minor controversy among the faculty here at Loyola. A number of us firmly ban electronic devices from classroom use. But a faction argued that students should be able to use ebooks in class since they cost less than the paper version. One faculty member counter-argued that students should learn to love the physical book itself. They could watch it age, touch it and after an especially good read even kiss it.

After the meeting, I congratulated my colleague. I pointed out that after the reading of the Gospel at Mass, the priest kisses the book to show our gratitude for God’s saving Word. I praised the growing practice of providing special binding, typography, illustration and even jeweled ornamentation for the liturgical book of the Gospels. We are slowly relearning what our medieval ancestors knew about the mystery of the book and of this book above all.The book is a quotidian miracle. A few dabs of black on a white page take us to Liechtenstein, Emma Bovary’s house and Mount Sinai. More astonishingly, they awaken us to what is invisible: the good, the beautiful and the true. And they silently witness to that host of benefactors who one day urged us, “Take up and read.”

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Henry George
1 year 8 months ago

Fr. Conley SJ,

Time to give up 50 % of your books.
You did take a vow of poverty.
However, do not give up the Knox Bible.
Bible's translated by one man are rare and though it may be
Latindated - Fr. Knox knew what he was doing.

Perhaps it is time to consider transferring to the Carthusians...

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