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Terrance KleinJuly 13, 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an academic in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a book. And that doesn’t mean a Kindle or an iPad. We need books, whose pages we can fold, whose lines we can mark, in whose margins we can correct the author with our own quips. That’s why moving is traumatic for an academic. We look at our books, and ask if we really need so many.

Let’s be honest. Most of the time, most of them are simply looking good on the shelf. That’s not to say that they’re merely decorative.  Not at all. An academic’s book collection is as essential as plumage on a peacock. Though we never admit it, we’re always comparing the size of our endowments with those of another. Fine, he has more books in scripture, but have you seen his collection of contemporary American fiction. Pathetic! 

But when it comes to moving, when box after box has been packed and books are still as entrenched upon the shelves as the Confederates at Vicksburg, one begins to wonder if some of them couldn’t be taken out into the woods or burlap-bag dropped into the river. 

There’s that volume of Harold Bloom on Shakespeare. You’ve never read it from cover to cover. And what are you doing with the first volume, and only the first volume, of the collected works of G. K. Chesterton? Oh, remember, you were going to buy and read them, volume by volume. And there are several novels of the Italian author you purchased in the Italian, before you left Rome, to keep la lingua corrente. Did you not think you were coming home to a job?

Then there are the books that you did read, cover to cover, but looking at them now, you can’t remember what’s in them. If an undergraduate were to ask, what’s the point of reading a book that you can’t remember five years later, what would you say? 

I suppose it’s like befriending someone.  Five years later, she may not be on the scene, but she’s still with you, still a part of you.  Yet it is lamentable that, at a certain point in life, you realize that you’ve already forgotten more than you have time left to learn.

That’s one meaning of the word “concupiscence.” If you were catechized back in the days of content, you would have learned that concupiscence meant sexual desire, lust. True enough, but it’s theological significance is deeper than that. It comes from the Latin cupere—to wish or desire—and it perfectly describes the human condition. Every day of our lives we find ourselves longing, wishing for something not there, not yet in our possession. And even the things that we call our own are taken from us. That’s as true of relationships as it is of property and ideas. And even the closest of lovers or friends remain somehow, in some parts of themselves, beyond our grasp, forever out of reach. To be human is ever to wish and to desire, to wish beyond our present, to desire deeper than what we have. But it is also to drop and to lose as quickly as we gain.

God, in contrast, we call utter fullness, the one who knows nothing of wishes or desires. God is the farmer who sows the mustard seed, knowing exactly what will come of it, who can let the wheat grow with the tares, because the harvest is always his. God is the woman who kneads her flour with a surety of what will come. God can appear to suffer injustice—God can be so patient with the sinner—because God knows that justice can never elude God’s will. “For your might is the source of justice; your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all” (Wis 12: 16).

To be human is to hope, to achieve, to hold in our hands what we should know is already pouring through them like sand. Every day of our lives, until the end, we simply are concupiscence, the creature that wishes and hopes for what can never be fully its own. The one who dies some each die, losing even the little it has.

No one put it better than the Venerable Bede, himself a lover of books, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. King Edwin ponders whether to accept the Christian faith. One of the king’s chief men offered this counsel:

Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to be like the flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counselors.  In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging.  This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another.  While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came.  Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.  Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it (II, 13).

Certain knowledge, knowledge that cannot erode, comes from God alone. 

Of course sometimes I do relent and dispose of a book. You haven’t opened that one in ten years. It’s time to let it go. And then, a couple of months later, what’s the book that I need? And why doesn’t the library have a copy? Perhaps I can Google the phrase that I remember and the web will hear my prayer and grant me what I need. God is a bit like Google, letting the wheat and tares grow, the grasp that never loosens. I only remember the phrase; Google has the passage.

Terrance W. Klein


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Carolyn Disco
12 years 9 months ago
As a retired couple preparing to sell the old homestead after 43 years, the rows of bookshelves and files beckon for thinning.

Letting go is a good spiritual discipline to accompany this venture. Simplify, simplify, we hear. Go through everything carefully, or just dump the bulk of it all, trusting that the essentials will survive, or somehow be mostly retrievable? Or find the sparkling middle, and look forward to the new, making of it what the Lord wills, best anyone can determine.

Thank you for this reflection. It lightens the day and the way, remembering that only in God is my soul at rest.

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