Tuesday, May 4, 2021

On having many books

The writer of Ecclesiastes comments that “of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Having just moved, I can agree that many books definitely weary the body. Overall, I think the book box count was somewhere in the high 70s between the office and the house.

And that was after two hard looks through everything to consider what needed to be given away before we moved it all.

Why do we have so many books? This is a question we asked ourselves every time we found another box of books. We had already asked it every time we packed another box of books. Why?

Here are a few of the reasons:

1. We spent money on those books and we’re not throwing them away. It’s not a flashy reason, but it’s a reality: books aren’t cheap. Unless a book is bad—and by bad, I mean, bad in theology or result, like some books that endorse abuse, racism, or others like that—we don’t just toss it. (and a book from the 1700s would be treated differently than, say, the nonsense that comes out of some camps RIGHT NOW, given its historical setting). We’ll give it away to someone or, if it’s a basic fiction paperback, give it to Goodwill, etc., but we hate to throw books away or just to neglect them. Trees died for us to have that book.

2. Books represent opportunities to learn. We have books on the shelf that help with math—even parts of math we don’t expect to use, like Calculus or addition! (mainly Calculus) The more I read, the more my family reads, the more we know, but also the more we are aware of our “knowledge differential.”

What’s a “knowledge differential”? It’s the difference between how much you know and how much you know that you don’t know. For example, as I’ve said several times in the COVID mess, I know enough about infectious disease to know that I don’t know enough about infectious disease. Knowledge differential is both empowering and humbling at the same time: it’s what drives us to know more and also to listen to others, realizing that they may know more as well.

3. Books represent what we already know: why do I have so many history books? I am a historian. I’m a pastor, too, and have lots of pastor-y books. It’s helpful to remember what we’ve already learned. There are some books that I can simply pull of the shelf and remember what I learned from it.

4. Books represent the accumulated wisdom of years gone by. Sometimes, there is the presence of error from years gone by that we can then learn from even now, like the assumptions about race or gender from centuries past that need to be revisited. Even so, people learned, grew, and passed on what they had learned. Life without books is like suggesting that we do not need anything from those before us, which risks buying into the myth that we are fully self-made. There may be one or two out there who taught themselves everything—but usually self-made folks did a lot with books and the wisdom of days gone by.

And lest we forget: all the authors, even the bad ones, were made in the image of the Almighty God. The God who causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust may have also left wisdom in the hands of many. Should we neglect His gifts?

5. Books are just fun. Honestly, they’re heavy, take up space, but books are well-worth the lifting, sorting, and reflecting.

Now, if I just could find the right organizational scheme for the ones in my office…

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