May 17, 2023 // Perspective
In Praise of Books Yet to Read
I’ve been looking longingly at the growing pile of books at my bedside. There’s just not enough time to delve into all the wonderful things I want to read. What follows, therefore, is a little justification for my growing pile, written in the style of my believed theological master St. Thomas Aquinas.
It would seem that Christians should not have piles of books.
First, the Gospel calls us to simplicity of life. Jesus, after all, told us to travel without a bag for the road or a second tunic (cf. Mt 10:10). Moreover, the Lord Himself certainly did not have a library, since He said, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest His head” (Lk 9:58). So, it would seem that from the witness of Scripture, we shouldn’t collect them.
Second, when a stack of books grows to an extreme height, it can pose a safety hazard. Jauntily stacked books can be tripped over. And when the wrong book is carelessly pulled from the mound, the perilous structure can tumble down like a toddler marching through a Jenga tower. So, it would seem that practical reason would curb book hoarding.
Third, bibliophilia can be a source of pride. We can gaze at our carefully curated collections longingly, congratulating ourselves for not being Netflix addicted philistines. Surrounding ourselves with the greatest minds, we risk fancying ourselves belonging among them. Thus, for the sake of preserving humility and fostering spiritual growth, we should forgo piles of books.
Finally, attachment to worldly possessions keeps us focused on this life rather than the next. We cannot take our libraries with us when we die. So as to be living even now for the kingdom, therefore, we should prepare ourselves for the eternal great library in the sky by divesting ourselves of the volumes we’ve accumulated here below.
On the contrary, St. Augustine writes in his “Confessions,” “So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, ‘Take up and read; Take up and read.’”
I answer that saying a library or any collection of books is first and foremost about the pursuit of wisdom. Scripture says, “Get wisdom, get understanding! … Do not forsake her, and she will preserve you; love her, and she will safeguard you” (Prv 4:5-6).
Scripture is itself a library. The word “bible” literally means “the books” in which the word of God is compiled. A Bible is itself a little library. So, it must be permissible for Christians to have libraries.
All good things must be pursued in moderation, as the Philosopher says. “Virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency,” Aristotle writes in his “Nicomachean Ethics.” Practical reason does not of itself say we ought not have a stack of books at our bedside, but only that the pile be moderated.
Pride is the root — the queen, as it were — of all vices. We should collect books of saints, aspiring to be like them. The search for wisdom, as was said above, is part and parcel to Christian life. We must, however, be on guard against wanting to be known or perceived as wise.
Finally, insofar as the books we read awaken in us the longing for the transcendent, they are admirable. Many saints have read novels or chivalric stories before a love for the word of God was awakened within them. Even after a conversion, stories that are noble and beautiful can stir up in us a desire to be with God. Therefore, books need not necessarily supplant heaven as our true goal.
Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is Editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickMaryOP.
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