Quodlibets: Keeping the Books

Members of religious orders, when they write their names in books, preface it with ad usum, meaning they have the use of the volume, but do not own it. But surely owning books is only to have the use of them. Unless they were built in Alexandria, libraries survive their makers and possessors, as artifacts generally do. The last duchess hangs upon the wall long after the lady herself has turned to dust, the penalty of being too soon made glad. It is a dusty thought to wonder where one’s books will be, say half a century from now.

That more than the normal attrition of time can be at work in such matters is clear from the brisk business now being done in the discarded libraries of seminaries and houses of study. In the iconoclastic frenzy of the post-conciliar period vast quantities of books were thrown out or sold off for a pittance, gotten rid of.

To some degree they were rescued from destruction, by individuals and by the dealers alluded to above. Recently I was able to purchase the first sixteen volumes of the Leonirie edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas which had gone out of print before I came on the philosophical scene. They were formerly the property of a Dutch province of the Jesuit order.

Why were they sold off?

Normally custodians of books dread the theft of precious volumes but here we have the spectacle of librarians ridding their shelves of valuable books. When the madness is past, someone is going to have to pay through the nose to rebuild the libraries where priests and theologians are trained. It is a whole tradition that has been thrown out. Books written in Latin and Greek and foreign languages were particularly vulnerable, but everything pre-Vatican II was treated as David Hume said he would treat a work of metaphysics.

The tradition is in partial diaspora now, the books at home on the shelves of individual scholars. Perhaps this is merely a way station on their eventual return to libraries.

It would be pleasant to think of this as merely a fast-forwarding of the common destiny of things. One of the melancholy joys of used book stores is to come upon a flyleaf inscription providing a sudden glimpse into a past that is no more. A parent inscribing a book to a child, a friend to a friend, an author to whom it may concern. Traced in ink upon the page a moment gone forever. My own collection of books contains many such fragments of the past of others. The books themselves are larger fragments of a wider past.

In the Dark Ages, it was the monastery that was the repository of ancient learning, the scriptorium busy with copyists whose lives were spent doing what a Xerox machine could now do in a day. Thanks to that dedicated anonymous labor, literary treasures survived to enlighten the minds and stir the spirits of a later time.

Admirers of Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz may imagine we are living in some version of the future dark ages of that novel. Individual collectors now hold many books in trust, ready for their eventual return to the monasteries of the future.

A more cheerful note. A few weeks ago I came upon Michel Villey’s Questions de Saint Thomas sur Le Droit et La Politique. I had never heard of the author. I paged through it, bought and read it as slowly as I could, rationing the pages so I would not finish it too soon. In the front of the book was a list of other works by Villey. I vowed to have the Notre Dame library order them all but when I got home and queried the library computer I discovered that we already had most of Villey’s works. The past two weeks have been the brighter for that fact.

No one had ever checked out the Villey books in our main library, but there they all were, awaiting their reader, their presence a tribute to some conscientious bibliographer. One should not take it for granted, but that is what we expect of libraries, to anticipate our interests, to have the books we do not yet even know exist.

Any librarian who rid his shelves of the books of an author like Michel Villey would be guilty of a crime. What then is one to think of librarians who sold off Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, John of St. Thomas, on and on? I know what I think of them. God grant that someday a Jesuit provincial library will acquire those sixteen volumes of Thomas’s Opera Omnia that now sit upon my shelves.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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