How we fell out of love is not entirely clear. I never would have thought it possible. Our acquaintance had stretched back to my youth. As I said, I heard her name before I had even met her. Older folks, glancing up from the pages of their Reader’s Digest Anthologies, especially spoke well of her. That is part of the reason I kept up the relationship for so long, against my instincts. Yet, I can now no longer deny the obvious. I do not love her and she, well, she is cruel and promiscuous. You see, it wasn’t just me that she met on the steps of the library or by the bookshelves. It wasn’t just in “my sort” of coffee shop that she coyly chatted and argued. She was everywhere and with everyone, and at some point she lost all sense of standards.
It is my suspicion that some of you know her. Some of you may have even felt about her the same way I did. And let us be frank, we would not be Christians if we did not have hope for her. So perhaps it was harsh for me to say that I no longer love her. I hope she will regain what she lost, if one can ever regain what is lost.
Still, that whole time that I knew her, there was another: her sister. Her sister was not striking to me then. I had actually already met her. She was tolerable, I thought, but not handsome enough to tempt me. She had—and still has—a kind of reserve. When I was younger, and with her sister, I would have called it aloofness or even elitism. Her patience, however, has revealed my ignorance. The whole time that I trotted around with the Common Reader, learning about “the seven great ideas” or the distinction between the “Tao” and “Te” (let alone the “Wu wei”—a concept requiring little effort to master), her sister was ever telling me about things like the cardinal virtues or recounting the battle of Thermopylae, or just chuckling quietly in a nook as she read again The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.
At first, I found her reading selections quaint, but over time I have come to see them as inspiring—in the way that old tales are. Nothing she suggested as “good reading” ever seemed to be smart and fashionable like her sister’s choices, but nevertheless, I could often find the books, especially in the last days of the old bookshops, and they were usually quite affordable, as they were so little valued. When I was a graduate student at a Catholic university, whole carts of her favorite books were being thrown away or sold for half a dollar. I remember taking her lists of recommendations and always finding something: Belloc, Chesterton, Dickens, Newman, Johnson—these and other treasures (for now I see them as such) were being cast off and without her recommendation. Like the cartloads of misdelivered missives in the Dead Letter Office of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrievener,” they would, with ironic cruelty, have been consigned truly to become pulp.
As I have become further acquainted with the other sister—older, as I discovered, although perpetually youthful—I have found that she is quite generous towards novelties that I associated with the younger sister. She is cautious, of course, about things like digital books. She laments the passing of the old book shops, but makes selective use of the Internet markets (supporting, of course, the remnant of little shops). She holds no truck with the more sordid sort of reading that her sister revels in. And yet, she has been generous—with her views, with her time, and with her vision of what things could be like. From her I have learned about books sewn in signatures, and who were the finest illustrators of children’s classics, and that certain things were best read by candlelight. Even though she is so very quiet, I have always felt much more full of life after an evening spent on one story with her, than a night wrestling over a hundred sterile arguments in a café with her sister.