Pick Up and Read

One of the features of the reading life I will most lament if printed books disappear is their tendency to become detached from owners. People sell their books, give them away, lose them in city buses or airport waiting rooms. If you stay in B and Bs in England, the parlor is often filled with books that have been abandoned by previous guests (mysteries mostly, but sometimes odd volumes of philosophy or long-forgotten gems that bespeak a bestsellers list of 30 years ago).

I have in my possession a few “orphans” that seemingly sought me out at various times in my life: paperbacks picked up off train seats or decommissioned library books found in dust bins. I once found a 1943 edition of Louis MacNeice’s Springboard at—of all places—a car wash. I had never heard of MacNeice at the time, but I took the book home and read it. It got me interested in Northern Irish poetry, a subject I pursued in grad school. I also have a copy of Brideshead Revisited that was liberated from a bar whose owners thought it smartened up the joint to decorate the walls with book-lined shelves. I remember reading it with my first serious girlfriend in an apartment so cold that the only place we could be comfortable was in bed under a heap of blankets.

Many years ago, too, when I was unemployed and living in St. Paul, I found a shabby cardboard box full of books at a bus stop across the street from my apartment. This was after a day of failed job hunting. I had come home very discouraged. I remember sitting in the kitchen for a long time, completely still and mired in despair, just listening to the sound of desultory traffic on Grand Avenue and feeling the light of the late afternoon sun drain away. Then I looked out and saw the box of books in the snow. I felt sorry for them and brought them inside. Most were dreary works of Catholic theology, but looking through the box I found a slim paperback about Karl Barth as seen from a Catholic point of view. On page 28 the author summarized Barth's reaction to the rationalistic, liberal theology of the 19th century. He wrote,

Faith is no longer faith at the very moment one looks for support, some guarantee within this world, on the strength of which it is reasonable to believe. In this world there is no possibility to rise up to God; the movement takes place in exactly the opposite way: it is in faith that the world becomes reality.
For whatever reason these words meant something at the time. I read those lines and it occurred to me that the effort contained in the failure to find God was how Godliness is manifested (just as it is in the failure to write true sentences or draw true pictures that beautiful things are created). Somehow this idea that failure and faith were intimately connected kept me going at a particularly low moment.

I imagine people will no longer happen onto “lost” books when electronic files or Kindles become the norm. Some marketing algorithm will calculate what you’ve read and suggest that "customers who bought this also bought..." I could be wrong. Google’s project to scan every book into its maw may lead us to trip over all kinds of unexpected things. I doubt it, however. In the end, we will probably no longer experience the strange, serendipitous pleasure of stumbling upon abandoned books that seem to tell us exactly what we need to hear.


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