March 9, 2010
Some of them have been my friends for two score years or more and have traveled over 25,000 miles with me. Many of them have been my daily companions and have overseen much of what I have done. And now I’m thinking of dumping them. They’ve outlived their usefulness. I don’t have room in my life for them any more. We just can’t go on like this. It’s painful, but this parting of ways was bound to happen sooner or later.
I’m paring down my library. The shelves are installed in my new and future office. And while it is just as spacious as my present office, it nevertheless has brought me to a day of judgment. A separating of the “keep” from the “nopes.”
Why keep J. D. Douglas’s or Jerald C. Brauer’s older dictionaries of church history when I have the third edition of the ODCC? Then too, why keep the second edition of the ODCC when I have the third? Okay, Douglas et al. will give me more on evangelical history, but do I need it? On the other hand, I will definitely keep my ANET even though I have COS. And I will keep my BDB even though I have HALOT. But Hasting’s Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels is a period piece and an antique (not to speak of moldy), even though it inspired the DJG. And then there are those old blue-covered Zondervan reprints of biblical language tools that I collected in seminary—analytical lexicons and such. They can go.
Why keep Latourette’s multivolume history of the church when there is so much else on the history of the church? Barth’s CD 1.1 has traveled with me for decades, but that English translation was replaced in the 70s, and one of these days I’ll buy it. Shall I keep the IDB when a new version has now been published? Sure, there are some classic essays, but none that the new IDB thought worth keeping. And I can probably access them on the internet. It’s hogging shelf space. And then too, what about ISBE? Yes, I’m a reference book editor. But I hardly consult it anymore. Oh, and there are those books that make me wonder why I acquired them. I’ll not name them here, but their authors have names like . . . . Well, let’s not go there either.
What about Hastings’s Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, which I salvaged from the Downers Grove Public Library in the late 1980s at one dollar per volume? (They were making way for Eliade’s Encyclopedia of Religion!) While I later discovered that some vandal had cut out the article on Egyptian religion, it’s still a grand testament to the old whiskered Scottish passion for encyclopedic knowledge. It’s a fine edition (you can feel the print on the page!), so I think I’ll keep it in honor of Hastings. Even though it takes up nearly three feet of shelf space!
And what shall I do about all those back issues of journals, some of which have been relegated to the garage—Interpretation, CBQ, JBL, JSNT and others. When I need them, can’t I make a trip to a library or access them electronically? But then, what a waste. All these years I’ve collected them and hauled them from place to place. And what am I to do? Recycle them?
Dare we visit the storage room, where all sorts of dusty and forlorn volumes lie, properly shelved or hastily stacked or slumping into decline? There we’ll find all sorts of books on American Christianity and religion, relics of my four-year devotion to the Dictionary of Christianity in America. In that department I’ll have to be brutally honest with myself. Will I ever return to till that back forty on my scholarly spread? I’ll save some classics and maybe I’ll try to unload some on a used bookstore. I don’t think I have the time or will to parcel them out on eBay or Amazon or hunt down a worthy recipient. And this reminds me that for some of the outliers in my library, I might lose respect for the person who wants them!
But here’s the nagging problem. As an editor I work across the theological disciplines, even if I’m primarily focused on biblical studies. And so over the years there have been numerous occasions when a question has arisen and I’m just sure the answer lies in a book in my library. The search ensues. A scanning of my office shelves or a trip to the storage room, and five, ten or thirty minutes later, I’ve found it. And a volume that has been moldering in a dark corner once again sees the light of usefulness and enjoys a few moments or hours of glory at The Big Desk. I congratulate myself on having kept it, and the book glows with pride. Sometimes I spend a bit more time with the book, rediscovering old passages, perhaps ones I’d underlined but forgotten. And sometimes I encounter notations made by my younger self (occasionally maybe a flash of brilliance, in its own way, but more often revealing a mind clearly under construction—and so may it always be!). Then it’s retired to a pile on the office floor and eventually migrates back to the shelves. Or to the storage room.
Some of these books evoke memories of serendipitous discoveries in used bookstores or places I’ve been, classes I’ve taken, schools I’ve attended, classes I’ve taught, discussions I’ve had, scholars I’ve known, papers I’ve written, books I’ve edited, intellectual discoveries I’ve enjoyed. They are material witnesses and mementos of the life of the mind, markers along the pathway of discovery and memorials to ideas, some of which seemed significant at the time but have now become the compost for new discoveries, thoughts and perspectives.
But judgment day is upon me. And besides, I need to make room for next year’s crop of books. Maybe I could start with this one. It’s reviewer says, “Its focus is on the glory of the book manifest. It is a fount of knowledge where the Internet is but a slot machine. It refreshes where Google merely sates. We will always need books for depth of memory, the free association of random thoughts. This dangerous two-tome sits on my living-room shelf, an irresistible distraction.” Only the price stands between my desire and acquisition! I’m sure I’ll have room for it.