In May of 2019, the Journal published what might have been construed as an obituary for the moribund chain of bookstores. Barnes & Noble still struggles to keep the customers coming but, in the long run, it seems to be a losing battle. I used to quip that with the dozens of books I bought each year from them, I was single-handedly keeping them afloat. The essay was called, The Empty Shelves of American Culture. This piece serves as its sequel.
Despite their many difficulties, many people continue to buy books—real books that you can touch, mark-up or bend a page to save the place of an interesting idea or quote. I think some buy them for cosmetic reasons, such as their colorful book jackets, which can serve as an inexpensive work of art. Some want to show how off educated or Woke they are. Others actually read them. When I am in a friend’s house, I love to peruse their bookshelves for a few suggestions and as a window into their mind and character.
Books, like so many human products and activities, have a long and variegated history. Books enhance life. Literacy is the means of obtaining information, suggestions and wisdom. Without literacy, the world would be further down the path towards anarchy and chaos. Amanda Foreman had a fascinating essay that appeared in the Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal, in August of this year.
Foreman detailed the history of the book in her essay, The Enduring Technology of the Book. She reveals that the oldest, surviving book was discovered just this year. This early book resembled a block of wood and inspired the term caudex for bark stem. Dating back to 260 B.C. the 6X10 inch piece of papyrus survived, thanks to Egyptian embalmers, who recycled it for cartonnage, used for mummy caskets. It now resides in the library of Graz University in Austria.
Prior to books, scrolls were used for writing in the Roman Empire. When their literacy rate increased, so did the demand for a more convenient format. This evolved into the codex, the word for ancient manuscript. The book developed in different forms around the world. In India and parts of southeast Asia, palm leaves were sewn together like venetian blinds. The Chinese used similar techniques with bamboo and silk.
The book soared in popularity with the invention of the Guttenberg printing press in 1454. By the 16th century more than nine million books had been printed, including the Holy Bible. The first censorship appeared in 1538, when King Henry VIII outlawed the selling of naughty books by unlicensed booksellers. Bookselling became a cutthroat business. Book piracy appeared with William Shakespeare as an early victim. Beautiful leather-bound books are still popular today.
According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the Bible has sold more than five billion copies, making it the best-selling book of all time. Abraham Lincoln has had around 15,000 books written about him, more than anyone in world history, with the sole exception of Jesus Christ. The founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, wrote 1084 books, the most by a single author in history.
To cut costs, Germany experimented with paperback books in the 1840’s but they failed to catch on. This changed in 1935 when English publisher Allen Lane found himself stuck in a railroad station without anything to read. Lane created a book publishing company, he called Penguin, which published literary novels in paperback form, including Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, one of my favorite books. The company sold one million books its first year in operation.
Whenever I see someone carrying a book, out of curiosity I try to peak at the title. I remember taking a flight to San Francisco many years ago with my first wife and her sister and husband. A rather attractive blonde woman was sitting in the window seat next to me. I tried to figure out just what her paperback book was about.
I saw the name Lee Child, the prolific author of the many Jack Reacher novels. I have read many of these adventurous books because they often relax my mind and give me a brief respite from the more voluminous histories and biographies that dominate my shelves that bristle and groan with their over-crowding. As was the case, he was merely promoting the book she was reading with some pithy statement abouts its credibility. It did lead us to a discussion that absorbed most of our three-and-a-half-hour flight. My wife, sitting on the aisle across from her family, was not amused.
The woman was a nurse, who lived in Tennessee. Her life included a number of heavy crosses for her to carry. Her former husband was a doctor, who had left her for another nurse. She also told me about a serious dental affliction. She had several visits to a periodontist who had put titanium implants in place of some of her teeth. After a period of time, she developed titanium poisoning, something I had never heard of. Her trip to the West Coast was just to prepare her for her up-coming treatments, which sounded frightening to me.
We then branched off into a religious discussion. She told me that because of all her troubles she had lost faith in a God. I started to give her a few reasons why her atheism was unhealthy. I suggested she should read, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s classic, Life is Worth Living. We also had talked about my recent trip to Italy with our parish. One of my favorite stories came from that pilgrimage. I was asked to be Father Jack’s lector during our Wednesday Mass in the Orvieto Cathedral, about 75 miles from Rome. I had served as lector only a few times in my life.
I read with my usual enthusiasm and clear diction. As we descended the cathedral steps, Father Jack complimented me. He said I should become a lector at my parish. When I started to hem-and-haw, his tone got a little rougher. He said: If you are going to tell me, ‘you don’t feel worthy’, I am going to sock you right in the nose! I did not answer his question because that was exactly what I was going to say. Instead, I said, Father how would that look if when we came out of this church after Mass, the celebrant punches his lector right in the nose?!?
This resulted in a wager between two total strangers on a long flight. I promised to become a lector, which I did for 18 months, and she would read the Bishop’s book. I have shared this story several times. Most people ask me if she lived up to her part of the wager. I have no idea because exchanging personal information was not a good thing to do, especially with my wife sitting right next to me. I still pray that she did read the book and was changed by it. I had done my part. The rest was up to her and the Holy Spirit. New York’s notorious mayor, during the roaring twenties was Jimmy Walker. He once quipped, No girl was ever ruined by a book. I wonder how many have been saved by one.
The moral to my story is that I just love books. They are some of my best friends. I think everyone should have his/her own library. Bibliophiles are akin to Oenophiles, the lover of fine wine. My favorite subjects are intellectual history, anything on the French Revolution, the American Civil War and books about the rise of China and its role in the 21st century.
Like wine, I prefer some over all the rest. Over the past two summers, I finished both of Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. I have read many of the classics, such as the Three Musketeers, War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo, Don Quixote, Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov. I found most of them tedious, too long and hard to keep my mind focused. The works of Dickens have almost been impossible for me to stay awake, with the sole exception of A Tale of Two Cities.
It is not just Dickens, I have always had trouble reading British authors. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a Catholic convert and a leading intellectual of the early 20th century has been exceptionally difficult for me to understand. While I have read his books, The Everlasting Man, Orthodoxy and his novel, A Man Called Thursday, I have been unable to penetrate his mindset. This also goes for the plays of William Shakespeare. They have to be studied, more than read.
I have had more success with American authors, such as Mark Twain, Samuel Crane and Ernest Hemingway. I really enjoyed Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Sadly, the Woke culture has found them offensive and they have been banned. I wonder what Twain would have said about this. Crane’s use of color, especially in the Red Badge of Courage, was magnificent. I see several similarities in this trait in James Burke, especially his historical novel, Flags on the Bayou. I loved Hemingway’s books. I have read most of them and all of his short-stories. I wrote a 30-page paper on his writings while at Holy Cross.
Like so many other writers in a genre, Michael Connolly, Lee Child, and the late Robert Ludlum, Burke has a favorite protagonist, Dave Robicheaux. I have read every one of his books, which feature him, especially Heaven’s Gate. Connolly’s Harry Bosch is my favorite, though I have spent many delightful hours with Ludlam’s Jason Bourne, and Child’s Reacher.
All of these characters are seriously flawed heroes, who would never be mistaken for saints. I think they all follow something like Hemingway’s code hero. They share a common inner search going on as they wrestle with the world, the flesh and the devil in their own way. Virtually all are dedicated to fighting injustice and evil in their chaotic and violent worlds, especially the alcoholic Robicheaux who struggles with his Catholic faith.
My favorite authors, include the scholarly Joseph Sobran, who wrote better than most of the modern writers I have read. Bishop Sheen’s devotion to Jesus has no comparison. His Life of Christ should be on every one’s list. I love to read any of the late historian Stephen Ambrose’s books. Irene Hanon, the wife of Deacon Tom Gottlieb from my former parish in St. Louis, writes very popular Christian Romantic fiction. She has won more than a few Rita’s, her genre’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. At least eight of her novels have graced my shelves over the years.
Some periodicals will ask their subjects, what are you reading now. My nightstand includes, the aforementioned Burke’s recent novel, a depressing biography of Ernie Pyle, the dean of World War II correspondents, James Holland’s Normandy ’44, Max Hastings 752-word history of the Vietnam War and Brian Reid’s biography of Civil War General, William T. Sherman, The Scourge of War.
I think books are at the heart of polymath Sir Francis Bacon’s essay, Of Studies. As he wrote, Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed. And a few others to be chewed and digested. I think biographies and voluminous historical works belong to the tasted category. They are often too wordy, filled with such extraneous detail, that the reader can easily be lost in their verbiage.
I share all of Penguin’s Allan Lane’s frustrations about being in a place with nothing to read. Books and Rosary Beads were made for such pauses in our daily routine. I was reading Mario Puzo’s Godfather while my wife was in a hospital bed in the early stages of labor, 53 years ago. I think I read a page per pain. Judy loved to shop, especially when we were in Florida. I always had a book with me. I would find a comfortable chair, close to a restroom and spend hours reading. I remember spending a couple afternoons with the late Patrick Conroy’s Prince of Tides. I was totally enthralled by his lyrical style of writing. It was like reading a very long lyrical poem, so beautifully crafted and Cranesque were his words.
Foreman finished her essay with comments that underscored the changing times and external threats to books. First it was radio, then TV, the Internet and eBooks. She could have mentioned AI as well. She proudly reported that people bought almost 789 million books last year. As a result of our move, my new space is severely limited, so I have been taking fewer exploratory trips to the local B&N to quell my periodic need to buy books. Before we moved I had to resort to a triage as to just which books I could pack and which ones had to be sold or given away. Sadly, over half of my approximately 2000 books did not make the cut, since my future exhibit areas had been seriously reduced. As I walk among my shelves and stacks of my chosen survivors, I often stop to read the titles I have accumulated over the last six decades of my life. There is a certain frustration because I know I will never live long enough to read all of them. But just having such good and diverse books, I feel that perhaps there is something called an intellectual transfer, that will by some sort of telepathic osmosis, transmit their wisdom to my mind. I felt encouraged by reading Bacon’s final words on books. He said reading books of great value truly enriches a man just as good food makes him healthier. He could have added hungrier for more.