Always Something to Read: On the Pleasures of Bibliochaos

There is no book so bad but it has something good in it.
~ Cervantes

When I moved from Oregon to Chicago, I went to my death – or so I supposed. Raised in the burbs and sheltered from anything resembling real urban life, I absorbed gritty city images from movies and TV (especially “Hill Street Blues”) as if they were gospel, and I was sure I wouldn’t survive my first subway ride.

Nonetheless, I still went, intent on finding out what I could, especially about the Catholic Worker – to glimpse first-hand its traditions of hospitality, selfless service, and the corporal works of mercy. Given all that, and in order to travel as light as possible, I decided to divest myself of all “non-essentials.” I gave away my futon and bike, a bunch of clothes and assorted knickknacks, and books – plenty of books.

It wasn’t easy to whittle down the piles, but in the end, I arrived in Chicago with only one suitcase and one box – although the box was, to tell the truth, mainly books. Still, not a bad job paring down the personal library. Plus, I came to find out that none other than Benedict Joseph Labre, the homeless saint, tramped about 18th-century Europe with more than just the rags on his back. “In a small wallet he carried a Testament,” writes Joseph Delaney, “a breviary, which it was his wont to recite daily, a copy of the ‘Imitation of Christ,’ and some other pious books.”

Note: “Non-essential” is a relative term for bibliophiles.

This is all the more pertinent when two bibliophiles marry each other and the process of entwining two lives includes interweaving two libraries. Nancy and I never have come to full agreement on how to do that – which, if any, volumes to jettison; how to organize those remaining – but it little matters any more. Almost a quarter-century of marriage has steadily swelled our holdings beyond any reasonable limit, and with the blessing of seven kids rummaging around those holdings over the years, bookshelf organization is now a forgotten dream.

That happens to be the way I like it anyway: the more messy, the better. The best used bookstores are the same – Smith Family Books in Eugene, for example, and Pandora’s right here in South Bend. Another is Omaha’s Antiquarium – now defunct, unfortunately. It’s a book lover’s mecca, and I used to visit with Tom, my father-in-law, whenever I was in town.

To get an idea of the appeal of these places, recall Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, when Michael Caine is stalking Barbara Hershey and they wind up in a Manhattan bookshop. It’s a beguiling scene of seduction that ends with the discovery of an e.e. cummings anthology, but the best part is seeing the wild menagerie of tomes piled willy-nilly throughout the store. You could findanything there, you see, especially something you weren’t looking for – adventures abound!

Such is the scheme of our own family collection that now sprawls through every level of the house. From basement to bedrooms, most shelves double-stacked, and there are haphazard mountains of volumes leaning in this corner and that. When the kids were younger, we at least attempted to parse out the massive assembly by diverting picture books, board books, and children’s literature to the family room, while the living room was reserved for more serious, grown-up fare – the Catholic Encyclopedia, for instance, along with our uniform G.K. Chesterton Collected Works and a set of the Great Books of the Western World that we inherited from Tom.

These days? Forget it. Pick out any random shelf in the family room – the so-called “kids’ library” – and you’ll find a slapdash muddle of genres and age appropriateness. Just now I went there and glanced at the eye-level shelves next to the fireplace: Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar next to Sherlock Holmes; an Audubon guide (North American Trees: Eastern Region) adjacent to Encyclopedia Brown. There was Sophocles and a life of Edmund Campion, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer and the Hardy Boys, and finally (my favorite pairing), Mark Twain’s bleak Letters From the Earth abutting Who Is Coming to Our House, a delightful Christmas board book.

It’s all jumbled, and there are too many (according to my kids), but Ienjoy having plenty of books around I haven’t read, and I like encountering booksI might not otherwise seek out. Plus, I’m convinced it’s been a good situation for my children as well. Say someone’s looking for a Harry Potter or a Calvin and Hobbes – lo and behold, what’s this? A history of Russia? A novel by Jules Verne or Michael Crichton? How about the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources or Darwin’sVoyage of the Beagle? Even if these are merely picked up, flipped through, and replaced, that’s at least some exposure to ideas and images, writers and writing, they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

If pressed, I imagine I’d trace my quirky passion for wall-to-wall books to “The Time Machine,” a 1960 film based on the novel by H.G. Wells. I saw the movie with my dad when I was a child, and it haunted me for years – less for the scary parts about subterranean monsters feeding on docile humans than for the concluding scene in Victorian England. The story’s hero, George, stops back in 1900 for a brief stopover after a variety of time-traveling adventures. Then, after certain preparations, he returns to the distant future to help restore humane civilization.

After he’s gone, George’s housekeeper notes that he apparently didn’t take any provisions except for three volumes that appear to be missing from a bookcase. Filby, George’s friend, asks, “Which three books?”

“I don’t know,” replies the housekeeper. “Is it important?”

“I suppose not…only, which three books would you have taken?”

Seriously? Three books? To rebuild a world? Why not five? Fifty? Why not make several trips to establish a futuristic depository? You’ve got a time machine, man!

But that’s beside the point. What really bugged me was trying to figure out George’s “THREE” – the Bible, sure, but what else? And that would still wrangle no matter what the number. I wanted to know what those three books were because I wanted to make sure I read them!

In the end, I decided it didn’t matter which books were transported, but only that they were transported – the more the better. And as far as selection, I’ve settled on: indiscriminate – grab an armful and run. Think of it as a survivalist literary equivalent of William F. Buckley’s famous dictum, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.”

After all, the rummaging can be as much an education as the reading, and I’d take a disheveled Antiquarium over three select volumes any day. Wouldn’t you?

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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