In Defense of Unread Books

What’s the difference between a hoarder and someone who buys books and keeps them stacked like termite mounds in the basement? This isn’t a joke. I’m actually wondering.

Solomon said (to the “amen’s” of countless generations of students), “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc.12:12). This is one of the most bewildering and, dare I say, even offensive verses in the Bible. Of the making of many books there is no end. Praise the Lord! That means that of the buying of many books there is no end. And of the reading of books there is no end. Solomon, it sounds like you’re describing paradise.

Now, of course, Ecclesiastes is a back and forth between two ways of looking at life. You can look at life “under the sun” and what you see is what you get. That can make life tiresome (even in studying what you love). Or you can enjoy life “from God’s hand” and look along the sunbeam (as Lewis would say) back to the source of the gift and, thereby, see everything else properly. And Incidentally, that’s why the phrase “nothing new under the sun” isn’t a truism for how a Christian should see the world, but rather, how the folly and exhaustion and diminishing returns of a life without God is repetitive. But if nothing else, his mercies are new every morning (Lam.3:22-23).

But I digress. Back to my hoarding problem. Or is it hoarding? Is it because I need to have a plethora of books? (“Jefe, what is a plethora?“) No. When I changed professions this summer, I gave away or sold about 30-40% of my book because of storage space and it didn’t kill me. And yet, three months later, here I sit with lovely, wobbly skyscrapers of knowledge climbing to the ceiling around me. I’m flanked at my desk. I’m surrounded from behind. They loom over me from above.

And while I sip from twenty or thirty books on a monthly basis like some sort of lazy hummingbird, I know that I will never read them all. But that’s not the reason. Why do I have so many unread books? Why will I (without doubt) buy or trade or borrow more unread books?

I love meeting new people. It increases my empathy. It expands my experience. My favorite C.S. Lewis book is An Experiment in Criticism. In it, he talks about the interaction of multiple writers. “But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

I love the pleasure of potential. Why is the waiting for Christmas better than Christmas day? Longing and joy mix together in a glorious anticipation that is invulnerable to letdown. There is a sweetness in an unread book because it could be the next Wind in the Willows to me. It just might be as good as Supper of the Lamb.

I love not being the smartest person in the room. This is an implication of Lewis’ above point. Wendell Berry is a wiser man than I am. Augustine was a genius on par with Plato. Don’t even get me started on Tolkien. But if I can experience life through the eyes of Tom Sawyer or Lucy Pevensie or Martin the Warrior, then I can also learn from them. I can be kept humble while I hear what Gandalf has to say. I can take notes as Dumbledore opines about true greatness. I can beat my head against the wall as Karl Barth shows me how I’m wrong even if I know he is also wrong.

So, as long as I can have a handful of change, it’s a good bet you will find me in a use bookstore. The allure is so strong and I can now justify it with at least three reasons. These stacks might grow a little higher yet.

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Beautiful Stories to Tell in the Dark

So, this one time, C.S. Lewis stayed at a haunted house.

But that’s not the part he chooses to emphasize. I would love to read a short mystery novel about Lewis at this haunted inn on a windswept hill in Ireland. But it doesn’t exist yet.

Anyway, the spooks and ghouls didn’t have nearly the effect on the locals as “the good people.” In addition to being allegedly haunted, this building was said to have faeries. And that was why the townsfolk steered clear of it. Now, having said that, I know that someone just rolled their eyes and maybe even just clicked away to a Neil DeGrasse Tyson video to remind themselves that we’ve conquered all mysteries.

But Jack had a medieval mind. Don’t forget, his day job was to teach medieval and Renaissance literature. And he took seriously what they took seriously. But to overcome the modern stereotype of Tinkerbell, he preferred to call them the Longaevi (“the long lived”). And in The Discarded Image, he takes great pleasure in subdividing them into different types with references from Milton and Spenser as his footnotes.

But my point is not to argue whether or not C.S. Lewis believed that faeries were real. His mind was thoroughly pre-modern and so was his imagination. And when he sought to explain the Longaevi (nymphs, fauns, satyrs, dryads, etc.), he sensed the tension they introduce in the medieval system. You had the seven heavens and the earth and the fullness thereof. But then we see this third category that defies tidy organization.

“They are marginal, fugitive creatures. They are perhaps the only creatures to whom the Model does not assign, as it were, official status. Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design. They intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous” (Discarded Image, p.122).

A welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty. The philosopher Charles Taylor gets credit for introducing the term “disenchantment” to describe the secularization of the West. Jamie Smith, in his very helpful guide to reading Taylor’s The Secular Age, explains that the location of meaning has been moved from the world to the mind. Things aren’t soaked through with significance. Our minds, and their ability to perceive meaning internally, are drenched with importance.

The cosmos becomes the universe. Creation becomes nature. The curse of the lightbulb means that all the shadows and uncertainties have been banished from the haunted house. Things are, in Lewis’ words, “a little too self-explanatory, too luminous.” Charles Taylor calls it “the rage of order.” And faeries, sea monsters, ghosts, and goblins are that splinter of wildness wedged in the gears of a well-oiled and easily observed machine.

That’s my point in bringing all of this up. A hint of wildness and uncertainty can be a corrective to the secular mindset, the one that sees the world for what it appears to be. There’s that great scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in which the children and Caspian are talking with a fallen star named Ramandu and the ever practical Eustace doesn’t quite have a category for what he’s seeing (despite meeting one already). He tried to correct the retired star on his own existence.

“‘In our world,’ said Eustace. ‘A star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.’”

I remember reading that as a kid and shivering with delight. A welcome hint of wildness. Do you see? That’s why I like watching scary movies. That’s why I enjoy fantasy novels and science fiction. That’s why I’ll binge certain shows that offer up an intrusion of uncertainty into a world with too many lightbulbs and not enough shadowy corners.

We can’t put everything under the microscope, least of all God Almighty. The medievals understood that at first blush. Jack did as well. So, yes, maybe those stars really are what science tells us they are. That’s fine. But I’m holding out hope that I’ll meet Rigel enjoying his retirement on the new earth someday.

Wouldn’t that be wild?