“You can’t even get literary staples in the new, gimcrack bookshops, Ruskin, Burton, Coleridge’s Letters, Sartor Resartus, The City of God by St. Augustine.”
That’s Edward Dahlberg in a 1958 letter to Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago (where he abolished the school’s football program) and founder of the Great Books Curricula. I love that casual “literary staples.” All are books and writers I’ve accumulated over the last forty years (in part, thanks to Dahlberg) because you can’t depend on libraries and “gimcrack bookshops.” In an age when, given enough time and money, you can possess any book, you have to scramble and hoard and pay attention to what a friend in Texas calls “very talented readers.” She writes:
“Right now I'm reading [Robert Louis] Wilken's Spirit of Early Christian Thought. I love it. Love it. I'm forcing myself to go slow. As I read your post … about Herbert and striving to touch reality, it struck me that he is talking about exactly the same thing as Wilken. This would draw a scoff at best from many of my academic friends, but I know that there is more to reality than meets the eye. They reject religion as `obviously’ unscientific and therefore worthy of scorn, but they know as little about the New Testament as they do about poetry. I don't think it’s an accident that the things they choose to remain ignorant of are things that require you to have a conscience. But I'm being uncharitable. I didn't love these things myself until relatively recently. (I'm breathlessly waiting for my copy of Herbert's Collected Prose!)”
Has a writer ever been blessed with so very talented a reader? Books are not props of a “lifestyle” or emblems of status but what Kenneth Burke called “equipment for living.” A new illiteracy grows daily -- read a book blog or speak with a college student if you need proof -- but not all is lost. My friend writes:
“Have you ever heard of the Jesuits' Cristo Rey schools? They've started several of these schools in cities around the country. In Houston, they bought a shuttered diocesan high school called Mt Carmel, over near Hobby airport. It sits right on the line that separates a large black neighborhood from a burgeoning Hispanic one. It's college prep, and tuition is $25 a month. There are several families that can't pay it, so they barter. One mom runs a taco truck, so she gives 25 tacos every month. Anyway, they've been phenomenally successful in raising money, but it's still going to be a long process. They opened last year with freshmen only; this year there are two classes. The school itself is still undergoing massive renovations. They don't have the budget yet to hire a librarian--so I volunteered to start the library from scratch. It's been quite the education. The most interesting thing was getting a call from the librarian at Dallas Jesuit High School, which is very wealthy. They're renovating their library and--get this--offered to give us all their books. They don't think they need them any more, because they do everything online. I think they've completely lost it, but I immediately agreed to come up and take whatever we could use. So I drove up there with one of the Cristo Rey English teachers. They had all the books spread out in long piles on the floor of the empty library--it was eerie. We spent two days on our hands and knees sorting through about 7,000 books, ended up taking almost 3,000. Oh man, it was strange. I saw some weird stuff--who would have guessed that there are about eight different biographies of Tom Landry?”
I’ll confess my ignorance: I didn’t know who Tom Landry was or why he merited eight biographies. He was a football player and coach.