Schall holds the minority opinion that used bookstores may be more important to civilization than universities. You ask, of course, where would used bookstores get their used books if there were no professors around to write them? The fact is – this sounds shocking – that people other than professors write books. I have a couple in my own collection, and I am listed as a professor.
The occasion of these random reflections, however, comes from a spy mystery that I was given by a friend in Chantilly, Va. The book is called “The Haunted Book Shop.” It was written in 1919 by Christopher Morley, not very long, 253 pages. The Haunted Book Shop was on Gissing Street in Brooklyn. It was a World War I spy novel of two Germans, known not as Nazis but Huns, who attempted to blow up President Wilson’s ship, the George Washington, with a bomb hidden in a used book, namely, Carlyle’s “Cromwell.”
However, this charming book is really about the lore of a good used-book shop. The book is filled with reading selections of tomes I have never read or even heard of, like “The House of Cobwebs” by George Gissing, after whom the street in Brooklyn was evidently named. This novel is full of smoking, be warned. Pipes, cigars, cigarettes, those vices we all shun, are constantly being lit, seemingly with pleasure and no after effects. Thus, a book logically recommended by the proprietor of the Haunted Book Shop, Mr. Mifflin, was “Social History of Smoking.”
Mifflin also lists Belloc’s “The Path to Rome,” a book about a walk, in 1901, from Toul in France to Rome, perhaps the greatest walking book ever written. My own Doubleday Image copy of this, yes, haunting book is completely falling apart, though some kind lady in Canada once gave me an undated hardback edition, published in London by Thomas Nelson and Sons.
Belloc’s foreword is entitled “Praise of This Book.” It begins: “To every honest reader that may purchase, hire, or receive this book, and to the reviewers also (to whom it is of triple profit), greeting — and whatever else can be had for nothing.” May I tell “every honest reader” now, before it is too late, that the most important things in life are those that can be had for nothing?
This novel is filled with wondrous comments on the nature of books and book selling, of the wandering through used bookstores to find what we never expected. “There is no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it,” the bookseller tells us.
One of the themes that runs through this delightful book is precisely the explosive power of books. “The world has been printing books for 450 years, and yet gunpowder still has a wider circulation. Never mind! Printer’s ink is the greater explosive: It will win. Yes, I have a few of the good books here. There are only about 30,000 really important books in the world. I suppose about 5,000 of them were written in the English language, and 5,000 more have been translated.” These words were written in 1919. I suppose the total number of books in the world has multiplied many times since then, but how many are “worth reading”? Ah, that is what universities are supposed to be about.
A young man comes into the Haunted Book Shop one day. He is relatively unread. He is a modern advertising agent, though he suspects the bookseller knows things he does not. He wants the old book seller to buy an ad, but the bookseller tells him that he does not believe in advertising. Good books sell themselves. “My advertising is done by the books I sell.”
The young man then tells Mr. Mifflin that he supposes life in a used book shop is relatively “tranquil.” The old man replies, in a passage I dearly love: “Far from it. Living in a bookshop is like living in a warehouse of explosives. Those shelves are ranked with the most furious combustibles in the world – the brains of men.”
Here is the real “Code of the Used Book Seller”: “My business, you see, is different from most. I only deal in secondhand books; I only buy books that I consider have some honest reason for existence. In so far as human judgment can discern, I try to keep trash out of my shelves.”
So what about laptops, Iphones, e-books, discs – who needs used bookstores? The folks most in need of used bookstores are those who think these instruments are sufficient not merely for their “education” but for their knowing what reality is about.
Fr. James Schall, S.J. is a professor of government. He can be reached at schalljgeorgetown.edu. AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT … appears every other Tuesday, with Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternating as writers.”