Sense and Nonsense: Used Books

Scott Walter had sent me a notice of the annual Vassar used book sale, held during May usually in the Departmental Auditorium, across from the

Museum of American History and Technology on Constitution Avenue. During the sale itself, Dennis Bartlett also reminded me of it when he told me that he had purchased for a dollar Belloc’s little book on Chesterton, an original edition evidently. This book I covet.

Washington is not long on used book stores, but it does have several sales of this kind designed to raise funds to support worthy causes. These sales are usually arranged to get rid of the books so that as the days pass the prices on remaining books drop accordingly.

Used books stand in many ways at the frontiers of freedom and intelligence in our society. For a few dollars at such a sale you can begin or complete or, as in my case, overstuff your own personal library. If I have anything to teach or tell students, as I wrote in Another Sort of Learning, it is the importance of having their own books, good books, actually possessing them, actually reading them. There is nothing quite like the thrill of finding a book to begin, continue, or complete an area of knowing or curiosity. It may be a rare book or a common one that we do not have. Often it is one we never heard of before. And there is something to finding a valuable book for 80 cents or so.

Yes, at this sale I found Gilbert Highet’s Man’s Unconquerable Mind for 80 cents. Though I do not have his famous The Art of Teaching, I do have, given to me in my Roman days, Highet’s Poets in a Landscape, about the Latin poets—Catullus, Juvenal, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid. The last two sentences of Man’s Unconquerable Mind are: “The present does not exist. Only the past and the future exist and we have a duty to them both.” I cannot imagine any two sentences more in provocative error. The present exists. The past did exist. The future will, perhaps, exist. Our duties to the past and to the future always pass through what is, through the present, the nunc stans, as St. Thomas called it.

But let me tell you the books I found at the Vassar sale for about seven-and-a-half dollars. One book which I thought I bought was a 40-cent copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I had already been given a copy of this most useful little book by a friend who thought I just might be able to improve my own. I figured I would give it to the first student I met. But when I got back on campus, I could find it nowhere, so I must have not put it in my black bag with the red letters The Tennessean on it.

A neighbor of some friends of mine is a doctor who specializes in hand surgery, for which there must be a Latin or Greek name. Thumbing through a stack of books, I found Human Hand and Other Ailments: Letters to the New England Journal of Medicine. This is a delightful collection about the foibles, mostly learned, of the medical professionals. I may give it to the neighbor, then again, I may keep it as it is pretty good—”To the Editor: ‘Abstract: Autopsied men ate more. . . .! Southern California does indeed rejuvenate, but now it revitalizes its inhabitants, even after autopsy.’ S.W. Rabson, M.D.” Strunk and White would have approved.

Next I found a Penguin Classic edition of Chaucer; from the Second Nun’s Tale I read, ” ‘I have a brother,’ said Valerian, / ‘In all the world there is no other man / I love so well. I pray he may find grace / To know the truth as I do, in this place.’ / The angel said, ‘God liketh thy request.’ ” That is marvelous, isn’t it? “God liketh thy request.”

On another table, I found two books that I had been alerted to by Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man, which I had been given for Christmas. L’Amour’s is a surprisingly good guide to reading, and not just reading about the West, though sometimes I wondered if he could not have used a more critical sense, or perhaps a more metaphysical one. Anyhow, I found The Journals of Lewis and Clark, which reminded me of the permanent Exhibit I once saw at the base of the Arch in St. Louis.

Secondly, there was George Armstrong Custer’s My Life on the Plains. Evidently you are not supposed to like Custer today. The book begins, ” ‘There are two classes of people who are always eager to get up an Indian War—the army and our frontiersmen.’ I quote from an editorial on the Indian question, which not long since appeared in the columns of one of the leading New York daily newspapers. That this statement was honestly made I do not doubt, but that it could not have been farther from the truth I will attempt to show.” I went back to find Custer in L’Amour’s book—”Custer saw the Indians being mistreated and in his book, My Life on the Plains, said that if he were an Indian he would be fighting.” I intended to give this book to Dennis, an avid reader of military history, but again the book intrigues me. I like Custer, who barely graduated from West Point but was there with Lee at Appomattox Courthouse.

The other day I had come across a quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. I forget now just where I saw this citation, but I realized that I never had seen this famous book. But there it was, one of the three books for $1.50. Holmes wrote, “The second of the ravishing voices I have heard was that of another German woman.—I suppose I shall ruin myself by saying that such a voice could not have come from any Americanized human being.” Whether Holmes is still right about “Americanized human beings” or not, the fact is that the human voice, German included, is one of the most extraordinary sounds, realities, in existence.

Continuing through the tables, I dug out a copy of English Society in the Early Middle Ages, just in case I teach the Medieval political theory course soon. There was William Barrett’s Irrational Man, which I used to have in Rome (where I left my copy) and have long wanted. I also spotted Learned Hand’s The Spirit of Liberty, also left in Rome. Father Charles N.R. McCoy used to cite (in his seminal and too much neglected The Structure of Political Thought) Hand’s little essay from this collection “A Fanfare for Prometheus” as one of the core considerations contributing to the destruction of the modern mind, “Human nature is malleable,” Hand wrote, “especially if you can indoctrinate the disciple with indefectible principles before anyone else reaches him.” In Hand’s view, freedom consisted in a lack of first principles, in being guided by what is not, not by what is. McCoy was right.

Further along, I found a lovely collection of Renaissance English Poetry, a copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems, Jonathan Edwards’ Basic Writings, and Christopher Dawson’s Progress and Religion. I always buy a Dawson book when I see one. I will give this book to a graduate student just so it will be passed on to someone to keep in the next generation. I will tell the student to read it. He will know why when he is finished. “The revolutionary attitude—and it is perhaps the characteristic religious attitude of Modern Europe—is, in fact, nothing but a symptom of the divorce between religion and social life.” This book is the Image edition of Progress and Religion, reprinted in 1960. I believe I have an earlier edition—yes, it was originally published by Sheed and Ward in London in MCMXXVIII, the year I was born. It seems strange to have on your shelves a book exactly as old as you are. But then I have Plato, and Aristotle, and St. Thomas, and all those really old ones.

On a table marked “religion,” I found a Gateway edition of St. Augustine’s Enchridion on Faith, Hope, and Love, with an analysis of it by Adolph von Harnack, of all people. I have the Random House edition of the Basic Works of St. Augustine. This latter edition probably contains this Enchridion, but no harm in having a separate edition. I also found Diderot’s Rameau’ s Nephew and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, a French text with an English translation. From “Le Voyage”:

Verse-nous ton poison pour qu’il nous reconforte!
Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brule le cerveau,
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?
Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!

I will not translate that except to say that we really do not want something new, if such newness is indifferent to the distinction of heaven and hell. In Chapter 121 of the Enchridion, St. Augustine says, “The end of every commandment is charity, that is, every commandment has love for its aim.” This is the New Commandment, the distinction of heaven and hell.

The final, book I bought was Nobody’s Perfect, Charlie Brown. I only know one person who might be an exception to this rule. Lucy and Charlie Brown are sitting on some grass along a sidewalk. She is depressed. “Sometimes, I get discouraged,” Lucy moans. “Well, Lucy, life does have its ups and downs, you know. . . . ” Charlie haplessly tries to cheer her. Lucy suddenly stands up, throws her arms in the air before a nonplussed Charlie, “But why? Why should it?! Why can’t my life be all ‘UPS’? If I want all ‘ups,’ why can’t I have them?” In the third scene she turns on Charlie, speaking louder all the time. She yells to a subdued Charlie, “Why can’t I just move from one ‘up’ to another ‘up’? Why can’t I just go from an ‘up’ to an ‘UPPER-UP’?” Finally, Lucy is shouting at the top of her voice and waving her arms with great fury, “I DON’T WANT ANY ‘DOWNS’ ! I JUST WANT ‘UPS’ AND ‘UPS’ AND ‘UPS’!” At this point, Charlie Brown walks away, muttering to himself, “I can’t stand it.”

With that outburst from Lucy and Charlie’s response, I figure that I covered a good deal of the world’s abiding mystery by my trip to the Departmental Auditorium on Constitution Avenue. In San Francisco, when I lived there, I often used to go over to the used book stores on Clement Street. On the way, I would walk through a small alley called “Lone Mountain,” down from Parker Street. At the bottom of the hill, where the alley ended, there was a city street sign that said, “End of Lone Mountain.” That sign was always to me a symbol of emptiness and fullness.

The present does exist.

“Unless there is a good reason for its being there,” Strunk and White wrote, with some amusement, “do not inject opinion into the piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great. To air one’s views gratuitously, however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk.”

The present does exist.

When Lewis and Clark returned from their journey over the Great Divide to the Pacific back to St. Charles and St. Louis on September 20, 1806, everyone turned out. “Every person, both French and Americans, seemed to express great pleasure at our return, and acknowledged themselves much astonished in seeing us return. They informed us that we were supposed to have been lost long since.” I, too, have seen St. Charles on the Missouri.

“I don’t want any ‘downs’! I just want ‘ups’ and ‘ups’ and ‘ups’!”

Ultimately, after the final autopsy, “God liketh this request.”

“The end of every commandment is charity.”

Such are the things that can be discovered in used books. I suppose these are gratuitous views, aired against no brisk demand. Some things are supposed to have been “lost” long since. Lewis and Clark, George Armstrong Custer, the New England Journal of Medicine, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Les Fleurs du Mal, Jonathan Edwards, Lucy and Charlie Brown—”I pray that they may find grace to know the truth as I do, in this place.”

“God liketh this request.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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