Sep 11, 2013

Posted by in Literary History | 1 Comment

Red Booth Notes: The Professor’s Bequest

Red BoothIn so many ways, books are a gift.

I learned this first hand during a recent visit to a favorite antiquarian bookstore. Southern Maine has many such stores, and I’ve come to know them all. To lose myself in close-set shelves, many bent with age, and studded with books well over 100 years old—is a privilege. For me, it’s like prospecting for gold. I keep company with the learning of ages past. I sit at the feet of men and women whose lives and writings have shaped the world we live in.

So many times, as I’ve poured over well-worn shelves, I’ve struck a rich vein, mingling literature and history. And while it’s true that in a formal sense, my college days have ceased, these books have become my university. Here, “school never lets out”—nor do I hope it ever will.

* * *

Going straight to the poetry section on this particular visit, I saw that several new acquisitions were there on the shelves—all beautiful blue binding, Oxford University Press editions of collected poems from various authors: Keats, Coleridge, Arnold, and Blake.

I bought them all, or rather, acquired them all in trade for books that I exchanged for store credit. I was the more eager to do so as I learned that they were books from the library of a distinguished Professor of English at Colby College: Eileen Curran. She was a specialist in the study of Victorian literature, and a guiding light behind the creation of the “Curran Index,” a groundbreaking online reference work cataloguing Victorian periodical literature.

I told the bookstore clerk I was glad to give Dr. Curran’s books a good home—to welcome them to my library. That brought a knowing smile that made my day.

* * *

And here, I think, is a lesson, at least one for me. Stewardship lies at the heart of it.

Often, I’ve thought that the books of my library aren’t really my own. I’m allowed to keep them for a time, and treasure them. I will mark days and seasons turning their pages—many well remembered, and gladly returned to. But someday, these books will belong to my son, or those he chooses to give them to.

What is a library really? For me, it’s a place to collect the best things I’ve found in my journey through life—texts that hold wisdom, eloquence, or evoke a resplendent world of imaginative fiction—say from Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis.

I wish to be a good and faithful steward, and learn the lessons these books hold. I hope to share some of those lessons too, in the books and essays I write.

But someday, my journey here will close. Bless God; I can look to the fair haven of a home that lasts for eternity. My name has been written in the great book of God’s keeping. But my books—my covered keepsakes—will be earthbound. They will go to another.

* * *

I never met Eileen Curran, nor did I know of her lifetime of scholarship until I saw several handsome books there before me one day on a shelf.

But I find myself deeply grateful that she chose so well when choosing books for her library. I’m honored they’ll now have a place in my own. I will try to keep faith with the texts of wisdom and eloquence that she knew—and do my best to pass them on.

***

An award-winning author, Kevin Belmonte has written and edited over a dozen books, including biographies of William Wilberforce and G.K. Chesterton. He is also a columnist for BreakPoint magazine, and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.

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  1. Beautifully stated.

    The joy of exploring a well-stocked used book store is becoming rarer in the Internet age. Of course there is gain as well as loss; I do love the ability to search and find scarce titles from all over the world and have them carefully packaged and sent to my door. But the loss is no less real. Over and above the purely visceral pleasures — the dusty smell and close-set shelves, the vaguely untidy though not disordered stacks, and the library-like quiet and unhurried pace– it remains that ‘search and find’ is a qualitatively different experience than ‘explore and discover.’

    I really love as well your notion of our being stewards, caretakers, of our personal libraries. You reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ reply (I don’t recall where, perhaps in a letter) to the theoretical question of whether he would have books and a library in heaven. He speculated that perhaps he would in heaven possess an eclectic sort of library made up of the books that he had loaned out on earth that had never been returned.