Saturday is the annual booksale for the seminary where I work. So this post starts out as an ad to try to get you along, but will turn into a reflection on books.
First the ad: 20 000 books on every subject, from 9am to 2pm at Vose Seminary, 20 Hayman Rd, Bentley, Western Australia. If you miss out on the big day, come along during business hours Monday to Friday until the 24 April and we’ll be selling the left overs.
Now the reflection. Working as a librarian and helping on the booksale, books, paradoxically, begin to lose their value. When boxes and boxes of books are donated every week, their physicality begins to get overwhelming. They become bulky, heavy objects, rather than the miracles of thought and language which they truly are. The physical problem of storing and handling thousands of books risks making me forget the respect I feel for each (or at least many) of those books.
Books were appreciated fully when they were hand copied scrolls, each copy representing hundreds of hours of labour – the production of the book echoed the writing of it. But mass production, the volume of books in the world today, the cheap paperbacks, they make books too common, too easy.
(I don’t actually want to roll back the clock to medieval times. It’s great that people no longer have to be rich to afford books. But this advance does come at a cost. And I am provoking myself and my readers to re-value books, to not let the miracle of books be diluted by their proliferation.)
The other problem is the tide of unworthy books which flood secondhand sales. Most bestsellers are fads, and fads fade, washing up on the shore thousands of copies of books which, now that the hysteria has passed, are recognised to be insubstantial . Alas, no books seem more unworthy than discarded popular Christian fads – anyone for a hundred copies of Left Behind or the Prayer of Jabez? (Secular books aren’t so far behind; imagine how many copies of The Da Vinci Code are already choking op shops around the world.)
I always find myself frustrated at people’s book buying habits: I want to ask people, ‘Why did you jump on that bandwagon? Couldn’t you see how crap that was without buying it? Thousands of years of books and you have to just go for the very latest thing, as if books were newspapers?’
But if people didn’t do this, if people showed what I regard as good taste, I wouldn’t have any reason to fool myself into feeling culturally superior.
I realise I haven’t expressed any of the joy I feel about being surrounded by so many books in my job. I love the quaintness of secondhand books, the moments in time captured just in the covers of even many of the worst books. I was looking at a delightfully camp book called ‘The Adventure of Stamps’ from the 1950s yesterday, with an Enid Blyton style drawing on the cover of three private effeminate school boys engrossed in a stamp album. I love the way old books make me feel like a time traveller, because someone in 1973 or 1904 was handling this precise book, with the same words and, besides some physical deterioration, the same appearance. It’s as if everything in between might not have happened.