I love the used book sales that local libraries hold in basements and back rooms. The smell of musty pages, the multicolored stacks of spines and lettering, the antiquated titles, the photographs within that reveal fashions that should never come back in style (but, of course, will). Every volume both time bound and timeless. Fixed when printed, yet changing with each person who peruses them. Children’s books. Cookbooks. Classic novels and esoteric poetry. Hunting and pecking through boxes, knowing that something wonderful might be unearthed, I feel like a treasure hunter on a quest not for gold, but for ideas. I once found Dag Hammarskjöld’s “Markings” and was drawn to its simple cover. At the time, I’d no idea who he was but a quick skim revealed it well worth the two-dollar price tag.
The small Bible concordance I use regularly came to me from the expansive religious section in the Columbia, South Carolina, regional library sale. Between the “Christian romance” titles and the “Left Behind” series, there it was: useful, cheap, beckoning. I found another hardback in light blue containing prayers for worship from the “Old Testament,” “New Testament,” and “other sources.” Beside many of the prayers are dates, written in pencil “10-10-71,” and in pen “10-26-82.” There are checkmarks by some entries, others are circled or underlined. Every time I use this treasure those dates and yellowed pages connect me with the Communion of the Saints and I am put in my place. People labored in these fields long before me and will long after me. Perhaps someday another lucky pastor will find this very book at a used bookstore, my children having jettisoned my expansive library to a rummage sale or the Goodwill.
Google and the internet prove efficient tools for finding all manner of information. I don’t need the concordance or the book of prayers or even Dag Hammarskjöld’s “Markings.” Nonetheless, their physicality – knowing that other people have touched, read and considered their contents – makes me feel less alone in the universe.
Marilynne Robinson, writing in defense of the study of humanities in a recent article in the New York Review of Books wrote: “I talked once with a cab driver who had spent years in prison. He said he had no idea that the world was something he could be interested in. And then he read a book.” I know that feeling. Who knew how fascinating funeral practices of the Civil War era could be? Or bartending? Or the golden ratio? Robinson writes of “being ‘ravished’ by a book, and of finding that it has a suggestive power far beyond its subject, a potency the affected mind itself might take years to realize.” I know that truth, too. Daniel Mendelson’s “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million” haunts me years after I read the final sentence.
I delight in such unnerving surprises that come with a book found in a bin and purchased for a buck, or one passed on to me by a friend already dog-eared and well loved, or one bought on a whim from Amazon or discovered on a corner shelf in a church library. Each one a portal to worlds I had no idea I could be interested in until I opened their pages, each one a way to expand my circle of concern or peek my curiosity or introduce me to people I didn’t realize I longed to meet.
That’s part of the appeal of books, too: There is no end to them. The endnotes, indexes and tables of contents point to other reading roads not yet traveled. The stacks on my nightside table never get smaller, the titles simply rotate as one gets read only to be replaced by another. I am comforted by such literary infinity. Humbled by the vastness of human knowledge. Hopeful that reading and wrestling and learning will yield an unexpected blessing.
As you read these pages I hope you discover a book or two, and in them the Communion of the Saints to whom we are all related and God’s beloved world, too. Who knows? You may be forever changed, ravished, left to consider the power of words and subsequently more thoughtful about your own.
Grace and peace,