What Buying, Collecting And Amassing Large Libraries of Books May Say About Us

Some thoughts on St. Jerome and his library:

Occasional fits of conscience over the propriety of reading pagan literature tortured Jerome, and he was once temporarily deterred from it by a harrowing nightmare. Yet he could not permanently forego this pleasure or the collection of books that allowed him to indulge it. Over many years Jerome’s library must have grown large and contained in the end far more Christian than pagan books. Source: Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts by Harry Y. Gamble

He continued to read the pagan classics for pleasure until a vivid dream turned him from them, at least for a time. In a letter he describes how, during an illness, he dreamed he was standing before the tribunal of Christ. “Thou a Christian?” said the judge skeptically. “Thou art a Ciceronian. Where thy treasure is, there thy heart is also.” Source: Catholic Online-St. Jerome

I use these stories not as a statement to say we shouldn’t read non-Christian literature or books. I don’t believe that for a minute. But rather to point to another side of the story that was talked about in class during seminary. My professor of Early Church History, Dr. Nate Feldmeth talked not only about Jerome’s struggle towards reading pagan literature, but his struggle and indulgence in the collection of books and amassing of a large library. So when the question is put to Jerome about where his treasure and heart is, it also has to do about his treasure being in his books.

I am open to disagreement, debate or discussion on that side or rendering of the story. There are many students and scholars out there who could elucidate the nuances and meanings of Jerome’s dream. So if you have thoughts, please comment.

But what interests me is books. And what our indulgence and collection of numerous books say about us. I wrestled with this issue in April of 2005 when I was moving and had to box up and move over 2,500 books. I have since pared that down to about 800-900, and I’m hoping to cut that down even farther in the next few months.

Some thoughts on why we buy, collect and amass large libraries of books
Positive Reasons–

  • We are in school and are required to buy books for classes.
  • We love reading books.
  • We want to be informed.
  • We want to be challenged, shaped and transformed by our reading.

Negative Reasons–

  • It makes us feel and look smart (so we think).
  • It gives us an identity (smart and well read person).
  • It impresses people when they walk into a room or office and see all those books (so we think).
  • There is some good feeling we get when we purchase a book (whether we read it or not; we are no different here than people who shop all the time and buy things they don’t need or wear).
  • Ego feeding

And on and on and on we can go in both the positive and negative aspects of buying and collecting books.

Why bring this up: The Kindle Effect?
Why do I bring this up? First of all, let me say that I love books and have been one to think that I look smarter and impress people with them. Second, my identity has been tied to my book collection at times and that is scary. I think, what would happen if I lose all my books and that was scary. (On a sidenote: I’m glad the one person who wasn’t impressed was my wife).

I bring this up because I was really intrigued by Newsweek’s article on Nov. 26 called The Future of Reading, which was about Amazon’s new wireless reading device Kindle.

I started thinking about whether or not I would be willing to move from reading hardcopy books to reading books electronically.

  • And I think I would, except for the question of what would happen to my identity if I were to get rid of all those cool looking books on rows of bookshelves?
  • Would people still think I’m smart?
  • Would my electronic book collection still impress people?

I mean otherwise, wouldn’t it be more cost effective, efficient and manageable to have our books on one device and on hard drives? I know, we all love having tangible books in our hands. I get that, but as technology gets better there might not be a difference.

Future Questions
I suggest you read the article on Kindle in Newsweek because it raises a lot of questions that I’m going to bring up in some future posts.

  • One, what is the future of reading?
  • Two, if we are concerned about the environment, why wouldn’t we move away from books that cost so much in resources such as trees, paper, manufacturing, shipping, etc.
  • Three, what is the future of both reading and writing in community? Which raises interesting questions about authorship, ownership. It also brings to mind interesting theological questions that you may have studied before concerning the authorship of certain books in the Bible and the role of the community or multiple authors in its production.
  • Four, will a movement towards electronic reading promote more collaborative writing efforts? How will this effect new theological thinking and publication? And what will this do in terms of authorship and ownership?
  • Five, what will be the future of publishing as we know it now?

These are just some of the questions that were raised for me as I read the article. Some are directly related to the article and others were from tangents in my thinking.

Thoughts
I would be curious to hear your responses or thoughts, so please comment if you wish.

  • Why do you buy books and collect a large library?
  • Would you stop buying hard copies of books and move towards electronic reading?
  • What do you think of Kindle?
  • Does your treasure lay in your book collection?
  • Do you buy and collect books because you think it makes you look smart or it impresses people?
  • And as a pastor, wouldn’t it be easier and efficient to have all your resources at the touch of a finger than in volumes of books?

7 Comments

  1. by avagee on January 4, 2008  5:24 pm Reply

    You can get a good taste of a future with ubiquitous eReaders and disposable books from http://www.booksinmyphone.com they give away public domain books packaged to be read on regular 'dumb' cell phones. The reading experience is much better than I expected. The super portability of adding books to the phone I carry everywhere was unexpectedly great. You can install direct to the phone from the mobile version of their website so you can even get a taste of the 'download anything anywhere' (at least download some things anywhere...).

  2. by chris on January 5, 2008  11:20 am Reply

    Um...yes.

    I have seminaryitis as well and have developed swelling in my librarius. Sometimes I am just awed by the symmetry and colors. Other times, books invite me into the community of authors and readers. I love what blogging has done to facilitate discussions and what not. In many ways, technology is moving us backwards...away from the independent solitary experience of the C21 individual and towards a communal approach to reading and sharing the ideas a text might inspire.

    My preliminary hope for Kindle is:

    1. It soon accepts pdfs.
    2. It soon reads old digi-books, so long time e-book readers don't lose all that cash.
    3. Pastors find a way to preach from it. Who needs paper if your .doc is right there alongside your sources?
    4. I would love to see digital rights management let loose a bit so that we could share pages and paragraphs and whole books if needed. Anything to promote the sharing of ideas in a culture devoid of any ability to think critically.

    Kindle like devices have the potential to do for publishing what blogs have done for the internet. I really look forward to being part of what happens (even though, right now, I can't pony up the $399 membership fee).

    Great post. We need to be thinking about these things. It's amazing what one can learn from Jerome. Imagine...those historical people are still relevant : 0

  3. by Rhett Smith on January 5, 2008  7:00 pm Reply

    Chris,

    Great comments and thoughts....I too would love to see digital rights management let loose a bis as well....I think there are some creative ways for people to still make a living off the content they produce, but to also make their material available to the masses. Or maybe in the future, people's livings (monetarily) are made less from the content they produce (i.e. album or book for example), but from what comes out of it (i.e. tours, speaking engagements, etc.) I know others are trying this now...and some are still making money off their content but through more non-traditional means (i.e. Radiohead's new album).

    Thanks for the post and thoughts....

    Rhett

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  5. by Katie on January 10, 2008  2:12 pm Reply

    I was just thinking about this topic because I attended 2 parties recently (one Christmas party and one New Years Party)in exquisitely decorated homes that were absolutely covered in books. I know one family well enough to know that they do, in fact, read voraciously and have most likely read most of the books throughout their home. My take on it was that it was not a prideful display of intelligence, but rather a beautiful, inspiring way to display and quickly reference cherished belongings. In terms of Kindle, I equate it to an iPod in the sense that it is a practical way to store and carry bulky items. So I think that the iPod can be a reasonable model for what will happen for Kindle. But I don't think it will make books obsolete - not for a long time, anyway, because there will always be the Andy Rooney types, nostalgic for the traditional ways of doing things, who will still circle the parking lot at Barnes and Noble.

  6. by Rhett Smith on January 11, 2008  2:37 am Reply

    Katie,

    Thanks for the thoughts. I do like books. And I do think a library is a beautiful inspiring way to display cherished belongings as you put it. Libraries and books can be a work of art. So I agree with you....sometimes I wonder our motives as well in amassing it. But I don't disagree. This is more my reflection and projection of my own struggles also. I will probably have both some day...more electronic books and a nice little hard copy collection of my favorites as well.

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