The Idler: Other Men’s Books

Among bookmen, it is not wholly implausible that C.S. Lewis after his death could have appeared somehow to the cleric J.B. Phillips. There is, we know, a singular communion among authors and readers, even especially among readers with authors who have been dead for centuries. There really is, to paraphrase Chesterton, a “democracy of the dead” that extends to the living, to include, say, Cicero, Saint Augustine, Dr. Johnson, and Faulkner among the lives and minds of their contemplation. Or, as Southern writers are wont to emphasize—by way of seeking consolation amid life’s vale of tears—there is a “Republic of Letters” in which the literate, by fidelity to the written word preserved between two hard covers, may gain citizenship in a realm that transcends time, and which edges, indeed, upon eternity. But there is another benefit to the life lived among many books in the home, and that is the slowly dawning realization that “my books” once were somebody else’s. That is, the bookman over time enters into a unique combination of indebtedness to, and kinship with, not only the authors but the previous owners of his books.

Offering myself as but an example of this relationship to “Other Men’s Books,” hence to “Other Men’s Minds” (and, because Eternity must be generous beyond our wildest imaginings, to “Other Men’s Lives“—if only someday…), these lines are undertaken on a trusty old Underwood in a room lined with perhaps 10,000 books. Some of their principal authors’ visages—invariably in a less-than-formal pose—hang framed here and there, but nary a photo is to be seen of the previous owners of any of the volumes. (There almost is one fascinating exception: lodged in the signed first edition of Rebecca Yancey Williams’s merry memoir, The Vanishing Virginian (1940), is a fuzzy, now-almost-brown black-and-white photograph. Depicted in it are three people, apparently a husband and wife and their boy, about four. The trio stands before a spiffy coupe, circa early-’40s, but there is no identification of them, or their locale. Who are they? is a query which will no doubt forever [?] elude my best-Holmesian quest of an answer.)

Curiously, not a one of the dozen or so volumes to hand on (mere) book collecting speaks even once to the relationship of reader/bookman to the previous reader/bookman/owner of his books. The Book-Hunter at Home, by P.B. Allan (1927); The Amenities of Book-Collecting, by A. Edward Newton (1918); Memoirs of a Bookman, by Jack Matthews (1990); and their companion works, are brimming with fine observations on the delights of book-collecting, and on the lives of sundry authors, but offer nary a nod to the trans-generational pilgrimage of books from one hand to another, often across the continents. (As an aside, A.E. Newton provides a memorable reflection: “A man [or a woman] is the most interesting thing in the world; and next is a book, which enables one to get at the heart of the mystery.” But not, despite inscriptions, at the “heart of the mystery” of the lives of the previous owners of one’s books.)

One case in point has intrigued me for many years now. From at least a half-dozen secondhand booksellers in four states and two countries (the United States and Scotland) have come into my possession books bearing the surname Thomson, and spanning at least four, and possibly five, generations. In The Ideal Life, by Henry Drummond, appears the handsome script, “H. Thomson, from Father, 1898.” In The Great Poets and Their Theology, by A.H. Strong, in penciled but no-less-distinctive script, appears, “E. Thomson, from my father, 1950.” And there are samples extending further back into the nineteenth century, and nearer even than 1950, in other of the volumes which now bear also my own name—and these trickled to me over the years from, by way of reiteration, booksellers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Adding to the fascination of the Thomson titles is that many of the some two score now in my possession contain captivating margin notes, or even oftener frontispiece notes, referring to other books which indicate the vast reach of their owners’ interests and the intricate discipline of their readings, as well as the superb precision of their minds. For example, on the frontispiece of Natural Law in the Spiritual World, by Henry Drummond—a book Drummond (1851-1897) intended to harness for Christian purposes the late-nineteenth-century exuberance (so sadly mistaken) for Darwin’s evolutionary theory—the Thomson of that time noted in his handsome script: “Read what Dr. Newman Smyth says about the error of Professor Drummond in this book and about the truth which he saw. THROUGH SCIENCE TO FAITH, page 23.”

Another name of mystical import to me is that of John H. Barnes. His is the name typed on bound-and-stapled cardboard (old file folders, it seems) booklets containing original book reviews from old and famous journals spanning the years 1852 through 1949. How old was this man?! These have come to me over the years from among the stacks of a wondrous secondhand bookstore in that most-winsomely-named village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia: Charlottesville. From 1852, there is a pamphlet on “The Genius and Writings of Bunyan,” from The Eclectic Review. There are essays on Milton (1881, from the Modern Review), Chaucer (from the Forum of November 1900), on Donne (from the London Mercury of December 1931), and, lastly, on “The Closing Years of Dean Swift’s Life” (from Living Age). All appear to have been published in Great Britain. How came they to Virginny? Was Mr. Barnes an amateur, or was he (no one has been able to tell me) once a professor in Mr. Jefferson’s nearby University?

The discovery of such old pamphlets, or, especially, old clippings—say, a review from the Times Literary Supplement of old—adds a splendiferous merriment to the inevitable if always-varied merriment of obtaining, particularly after long years of searching, almost-exhausted patience, and perilous expense, some book of definite significance. For instance, there once came to me from the cheerful Andrew Prosser of Chicago a dustjacketed first edition of Chesterton’s Autobiography which included among its pages clippings from London papers and Hilaire Belloc’s own poignant remembrance of his great friend and fellow-crusader.

Surprisingly few of the previous owners of my books added their own penciled or penned index to their volumes—though most did not hesitate to add to the margins their markings of some style or another, and of some meaning known only to the Illuminati. There has been only one pleasant exception to this rule. This occurs with A Spiritual Aeneid, by Monsignor Ronald Knox (1918), and added to the library of one George Craig Stewart of somewhere in Britain on Thanksgiving Day that year. When I found it necessary to turn to the inside back cover to add my own topical index for future reference, lo, and behold, Mr. Stewart had been there before me, and on precisely the same topics: Anglicanism, Bishops, the Iliad of Homer, Authority (Anglican and Roman), and (yes, ’tis a long war we wage) Liberals. And Mr. Stewart had inserted a clipping from the Church Times of May 10, 1918, in which some anonymous reviewer, under the pseudonym “The Wayfarer,” had some rather unkind observations on Knox’s spiritual aeneid, which of course took him (Knox, that is) from the Church of England into the Church of Rome. Furthermore, in his penciled hand, which is, to my great relief, even harder to read than my own, Mr. Stewart reminded himself to “get Belloc’s Path to Rome.” Did he? one wonders.

All of which deepens the bookman’s understanding of his indebtedness to the lives and minds of bookmen before him, even as it engenders the further sense that a private library is a fleeting possession. A poignant reminder of this latter touching fact came to me more recently through the kindness and generosity of Thomas Loome of Stillwater, Minnesota. For among the 150 volumes of The World Encyclopedia of Catholicism he enabled me to obtain is one inscribed as follows: “Merry Christmas to Most Rev. C.S.S. Rollins, Christmas 1962, from Dr. Starrs.” That was some Christmas gift! (‘Twas also my own necessary rationalization in undertaking the purchase: Merry Christmas to me, 1993, 1994, 1995, ad multos annos.)

So bookmen die, but their books do, indeed, live. An increasing awareness of my own mortality already has prompted me to deed my own library, lest it otherwise make its way to the four winds, to my daughter (she’s 21). (So “my books” aren’t even mine: they’re hers. Thankfully, she’s granted me a Lifetime Borrower’s permit.)

Yet amid the sadness of remembering that bookmen die, and that their books pass on to unknown other hands—and so into other minds and souls—there is the larger remembrance that, truly, “the word (as in Word) does not return… void.” We who are bookmen partake not only, as that phenomenal bookman of our time, Mortimer Adler, has remarked, in “the conversation of the ages,” but, even more remarkably, in what can only be described as a communion of the sages, perforce (one may pray) even of the saints.

Father James V. Schall almost touched upon this blessed company in his grand little book, Another Sort of Learning, in which he extols the superior learning (hence life) which belongs to those who forsake the grim curriculum of the schools (are you reading, Mother, dear?) for the pleasant precincts of the stacks in secondhand bookstores. Second… hand…. As the volumes on my shelves inscribed Thomson demonstrate, the bookman is the heir actually of many hands, now long in dust. By way of yet one more example: one of my prized possessions, discovered in a shop in Leesburg, Virginia, is an original of the Gentleman’s Magazine for March 1752, in which “The Rambler takes his leave”—that is, containing the last of the Rambler columns by the inimitable Samuel Johnson. One must suppose (counting 25 years as a generation) that the hands of no fewer than ten previous owners once clung like life itself to this now 241-year-old treasure.

Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” But does not the bookman imagine an eternity with (among so many others—Aquinas, Thomas Traherne, General Lee) the men (and the women) who wrote, and who previously owned, the books which enriched his life? (In the company, of course, of sundry kith and kin, of a certain wonderful and beautiful woman, and especially of Him Whose only scribbling was of some eternally-enchanting line in the sand at His feet.)

After all, are we not told, “Their names are written in The Book”?


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