Books line one whole wall of my office at America. Over 1,000 of them, on eight rows of gray metal shelves that stretch from one end of the room to the other. No, these are not my own books, which are few, but the collection of the Catholic Book Club, a longtime adjunct operation of the magazine. The club is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, but the word “celebrating” is something of a misnomer. Falling victim to competition from online sellers like amazon.com, as of midnight on July 6 it ceased to exist as a book-of-the-month club and was resurrected as online monthly recommendations from America’s editors.
After lunch, I occasionally browse among the shelves’ contents, especially those that hold the earliest volumes. The very first selection was a novel, The Way It Was With Them, by the Irish writer Peadar O’Donnell. He is still listed among the authors in the current edition of Books in Print, a circumstance suggesting that the book club often chose writers of lasting reputations. According to the yellowing pages of the Catholic Book Club Newsletter for October 1928—remarkably, we have all the newsletters, from the beginning—he was a young man in his 30’s when he wrote this his first novel, which was immediately accepted by the first publisher to whom he sent it. It deals with a poor fishing family, headed by a widow with 12 children, trying to survive on an island off the west coast of Ireland. It has the kind of simple but pleasing black and white woodcut illustrations that were popular in the 1920’s and 30’s. Inside the front cover of that first selection someone has written in heavy black ink, “October 1928 1st book of Catholic Club” [sic]. Whose hand might this have been? Perhaps that of the then-editor in chief, Wilfred Parsons, S.J., or a member of the club’s seven-member editorial board, whose editorial secretary was another Jesuit, Francis X. Talbot.
Far more than in later years, the early selections favored novels. Side by side on the same shelf with The Way It Was With Them are two other novels, both selections for 1931—Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock and Lucille Borden’s Silver Trumpets Calling. Willa Cather’s work has survived, but Lucille Borden is now all but forgotten. History books were also popular in the club’s early years, and one shelf down is Francis Kelley’s Blood-Drenched Altars (1935)—a thick volume, bound in red, about the persecution of the Catholic Church in Mexico during the first few decades of the 20th century. I read it just a few years ago while doing research on Jesuits who had been incarcerated for their faith. A holy card and a yellowed newspaper clipping about Al Smith are inserted between its pages, perhaps as bookmarks. Al Smith’s autobiography, in fact, Up to Now, was the club’s selection for October 1929.
In leafing through early selections like these, I have noticed that a number of their publishers are no longer in business. For instance, the historian Christopher Hollis’s The Monstrous Regiment (1930), an account of religious struggles during the reign of Elizabeth I, was published by the New York firm of Minton, Balch & Company. The now vanished P. J. Kenedy and Sons that same year issued John Gibbon’s Tramping to Lourdes, a first-person account of considerable charm of an Englishman’s walk to Lourdes. Some of the copies on my office shelves were donated by the publishers. A certain S. K. Peavy, a representative of the Macmillan Company, enclosed his business card with the copy of The Catholic Spirit in Modern English Literature (1928). But evidently those responsible for ensuring the completeness of the collection depended on copies donated by club members. A crested bookplate with the name Hubbard appears in several of the early volumes, and in others former owners have written their names in pencil or ink. A 1931 book by Jacques Maritain is stamped “Georgetown Prep. School House Library Garrett Park, Md.”—a gift (surely not a theft!) from another Jesuit institution. A number of the books are stamped America Press Library, although America Press—its name notwithstanding—has published few books. It is simply the name of the legal corporation that owns the magazine.
America began to speak of its forthcoming book-of-the-month club in the spring of its initial 1928 year. One of the associate editors (later editor in chief from 1944 to 1948) was John LaFarge, S.J. His autobiography, The Manner Is Ordinary, was itself a club selection long afterward, in the 1950’s. In one of his regular columns in the 1920’s, With Scrip and Staff, he quotes a statement of the club’s founders—or originators, as he describes them—that now would probably be called its mission statement: “The Catholic Book Club is an energetic, organized movement to stimulate our Catholic authors, and to enlist our Catholic people in the support of this better literature. Its aim,” he continues, “is to place Catholic literature on a par with the very best reading of the day.”
He adds that because of their superabundance, “purely devotional books are ruled out.” What then was ruled in? Besides fiction and history, he mentions poetry, drama, biography, philosophy, sociology and education. A wide range indeed, and shelf by shelf I find examples of each.
The club’s secretary, Father Talbot, wrote a column in the spring of 1928 titled “What Catholic Literature Is.” It is far broader in its understanding of the concept than one might expect. Many, he says, erroneously assume it is “a literature that is professedly devotional and ascetic.” But such a definition, he argues, is far too restrictive, and so he goes on to observe that there are two kinds of Catholic literature, which he describes as “the cloistral and the laical.” It is the latter that interests him most, and of it he says, in a simile reflective of the language of the Roaring Twenties: “The laical literature...could be as inconspicuously Catholic in its exterior as a flapper in a fur coat...but it would be as Catholic in soul and mind as would the religiously garbed monsignor.” Although it is something of a stretch of the imagination to imagine a flapper in a fur coat standing next to a “religiously garbed monsignor,” one can see his point—namely, diversity.
The Catholic Book Club also sponsored a radio show called the Catholic Book Club Hour, transmitted over the Paulist Fathers’ radio station, WLWL, on Monday evenings at 7:30. The talks, by the club’s editors “and other distinguished writers,” were on books and reading, with an emphasis on the current selection. It is first mentioned in the club’s newsletter for November 1929, and not surprisingly, perhaps, the first speaker was the editor in chief, Father Parsons. In the second year, however, the program was broadcast only once a month, on first Fridays, and finally it disappeared altogether—an experiment that ultimately failed. One wishes that some of these talks had been recorded.
Until its final move to the then-recently purchased America House on West 56th Street in 1965, the club operated out of several locations. The first was the magazine’s publishing office at Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street in Manhattan. By 1941 it had moved to a basement-level storefront at 140 East 45th Street. A newsletter of that time shows a photograph of its bay window, with “Catholic Book Club” lettered on one side. I walked by there recently. The bay window is gone, and the space is now occupied by a Japanese restaurant. From there, the club took up quarters in rented space in the nearby Grand Central Terminal building until it moved to its present and final location.
As with any book club that goes out of business, unsold books remained. Many were claimed by their authors, but what to do with the rest? Starting on a steamy Sunday in early August, America’s current editor in chief, Thomas Reese, S.J., hauled them up from the basement on a hand truck and put them on display in open cardboard boxes on the sidewalk in front of the America House building. Above them on the brick wall were taped signs: “FREE BOOKS BELOW FOR THE TAKING.” Passersby on our busy midtown street acted on that invitation and carried them away in their arms. It was a more generous method of disposal, at least, than simply consigning them to the gaping maw of a city sanitation truck. For true book lovers, throwing away good books in mint condition is almost as bad as throwing away food. One hopes those books, scooped up from the sidewalk perhaps out of mere curiosity, will continue to be read by passersby who recognize their worth.
The “sale” continued through the blackout and into the next week, and signaled the Catholic Book Club’s farewell after 75 years of service as a bookseller. On our Web site (see link at top of this page), the club will continue to recommend a book each month. The printed newsletter has been discontinued, but an abbreviated e-mail version lives on in cyberspace. Rather than selling books, the club now directs its members to their local bookstore or amazon.com, which pays America Press a small commission on each book purchased.
The complete collection of all that the club issued from 1928 onward—on my left, as I sit here typing these words—is a testimony to the richness of Catholic letters, a historical treasure that will not, one fervently hopes, go out on the sidewalk.