I have something to say today in praise of old books.
I’ll start with a lighter story of how I discovered my new favorite bookshop in the entire world. Then I’ll share, in a series of posts, a few of the important old books I’ve been reading this year, and why I feel they are fruitful and pertinent to our current historical, literary, and/or metaphysical moment.
You may know (or guess) that I am an avid reader. But 2021 has been by far the most enjoyable and profitable year of reading for my mind and spirit that I’ve ever spent. This is God’s mercy to me, because it’s also been about the hardest year of my life, as my daughter has battled severe health issues.
For several months this year, my family lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas, while my daughter was receiving special medical treatment. We discovered what quickly became our favorite bookstore in the world: Dickson Street Bookshop. It is actually featured on BuzzFeed’s list of the 17 Bookstores That Will Literally Change Your Life. (We didn’t know that when we first fell in love with it.) That’s not hyperbole. This is a bookstore of used, rare, and out-of-print books like no other.
I’ve been back in Baltimore now since early August, and still I find myself pining for that bookshop on a regular basis, reliving memories of walking down its narrow corridors, climbing ladders to scour the upper shelves, and discovering there again and again books from my eclectic to-read list that were a fraction of their Amazon cost (if they were even found on Amazon).
Dickson Street Bookshop was my happy place. Whenever I needed a break from caregiving and being with my daughter at her all-day, everyday treatments, I drove over there and lost myself for a while, usually returning home with at least a couple titles.
Side note: I wouldn’t be opposed if any of you reading this wanted to buy me this map of the store (yes, they actually sell copies of it) to aid me in my reminiscing…
Some of my favorite Dickson Street finds:
Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture – Larry Woiwode
Fathers and Sons – Ivan Turganev
How the Irish Saved Civilization – Thomas Cahill
On Moral Fiction – John Gardner
Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Disbelief – Joseph Pearce
Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry – Carl Philips
119 Years of The Atlantic (anthology)
Another side note: I know that I can probably find many of those titles at the library, but when I engage with a book, I like to underline, star, and exclamation-point my way through it. I read it through, marking points that stand out to me, and then after I finish it, I go back and take notes in my writing notebook, continuing my conversation with the author and their ideas. There’s no way to do this without making other library patrons angry. I’ve tried ripping strips of paper to mark every page I need to revisit, then photocopying those pages, but that is ridiculously tedious…. I need my own copy.
I will end this section letting you know that Dickson Street Bookshop will mail out books. This soothes my heart a bit. And the folks at the counter or answering the phone usually seem to know off the top of their heads if they have a specific title and where it would be in their labyrinth of halls. They are book lovers, I tell you.
On to old books and how they can help us.
Of the books I’ve read this year, at least fifteen are old books. I’m counting as “old” anything written before my lifetime (or within my first few years). I think you’d agree that our world has vastly changed since the mid-seventies. Why do we need to go digging around in dusty old books from times seemingly less “enlightened” or “progressive” than our own?
G. K. Chesterton had this characteristically witty response to the question of why we should engage with the prevailing ideas of those gone before us (which he lumps together under the word tradition):
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”Orthodoxy
I am a big proponent of the marketplace of ideas. I think people, and especially writers, should be able to engage in robust debate and discussion about ideas, politics, philosophy, society, metaphysics, etc.—and may the best ideas win! Some ideas are better than others. Some are more rational, more in line with what it means to be human. Some have better consequences than others (and all ideas have consequences, intended and unintended).
If we only read works from our own time, from “approved” contemporary writers, we do ourselves and our life together in society a grave disservice (again, with potentially grave consequences). We have things to learn from those who came before. Many of them were actually able to foresee where our Modernist project would take us and may be able to open our eyes to new (old) possibilities and wisdom—if we let them.
In that spirit, I offer you a few old books I’ve read recently that I believe have some valuable things to say; they offer some perspectives we may need to recover. For each, I give a brief introduction, list several thought-provoking quotes, and then wrap up with my response. I’ll be writing these in parts, with each featured old book and commentary in a new post. Each of these old books has a special insight for me as a poet and writer.
More importantly, each of these authors helps reveal how all of our ideas are based in a fundamental worldview—a metanarrative about who and what we are as humans and what, if anything, this world means. Which brings me to Chesterton again: “[T]here are some people, nevertheless—and I am one of them—who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe” (Heretics, 5). I think that literature and art should wrestle with fundamental metaphysical questions, and should—at least some of the time—land somewhere. Good literature and art should show us the outcomes of ideas, their natural consequences. (Believe it or not, these are controversial ideas.)
Yet another side note: When reading old books, you will occasionally stumble over an idea, a word, or a phrase that is not used much anymore, due to its being considered offensive according to today’s norms. Resist the temptation to cancel the author based solely upon an egregious phrase or an idea that reveals old prejudices or limitations to understanding. Believe it or not, each of us can hold simultaneously brilliant ideas and ones in need of changing or updating. Humans are complex—we can be both sinners and saints. We can still learn from people who have blind spots. We are all limited by necessity of being formed by our times.
I hope you will profit by this series. I’d love to know what some of your favorite old books are.