Last night I gave an address at The Grand Castle in Grandville, Michigan on the occasioning of its library opening. I spoke on the importance of books and libraries. As the Librarian and a Research Associate at the Acton Institute it is a topic of professional interest but is also an abiding private passion. Managing the library and doing editorial work on publications means that I deal in books from their conception to natural death, from womb to tomb as it were.
What is this thing, this book which I am both personally and professionally wrapped up in? They are texts, words, and ideas. The namesake of the Acton Institute, Lord Acton, believed texts to be essential to human civilization. He believed civilization itself is established and moved forward on the basis of ideas. These ideas are transmitted far and wide in his day and our own by texts. He was a historian, an editor of a magazine of ideas, and a professor. He wrote a lot of text and advanced many ideas but never did get around to writing a book. He left it to others to collect his texts and make books out of them.
Books are more than simple texts, they are also physical artifacts. It is only a happy accident of history from Gutenberg to the present digital age that our interactions with texts were primarily in this particular physical form. Today I would wager that most of our interactions with texts are mediated by screens, particularly our phones.
We send and receive texts daily, we click on links, and we share on social media. Occasionally the more nostalgic, rigorous, or merely old fashioned of us may still dip our noses into actual books.
Gene Roddenberry, the science fiction visionary who brought us Star Trek, gave us glimpses of the future in so many ways yet unrealized. Travel to strange new worlds and food replicators are just as remote as ever, but what has been realized in our present is the ubiquity of screens. There is only one character in the Star Trek universe still wrapped up in books, Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Jean-Luc is both nostalgic and rigorous, definitely and defiantly old fashioned, but he is also something else, he is wise. The wisdom of Picard himself is wrapped up in books. Picard shows us the importance of books even in a digital age.
Books, both in their reading and their writing represent not just knowledge but a way of knowing, they are how we become wise.
First they are written on topics, a method of inquiry reinvigorated by the renaissance, humanism, and the reformation. All contemporaries of the emergence of the printing press. The economist Ludwig von Mises once suggested that if one wanted to really know something the best thing to do was to write a book about it. Books focus the mind of not only the reader but the writer. Second, they are written by authors. The products of particular experience. They are a way of passing down experiences, thoughts, and ideas to others. In their writing they are teaching and in their reading they become our teachers. Third, they are written in particular places and times, conveniently giving us their contexts on their very title pages.
These characteristics make books a form of transmission and not merely a mass of undifferentiated and suffocating information. These distinctive characteristics are given, in code, in the call numbers on the spine of every book you will find in a library. Libraries organized in this fashion are thus organized in the fashion of the very books they house. Without books there are no libraries.
You can learn a lot about a place, an institution, or a person by their libraries. Their interests, their teachers, and their contexts. It is one of my abiding guilty pleasures to see what I can learn about a place or a person by perusing their shelves. They are without exception interesting though their interests and purposes vary. These people and places are without exception interesting because through their books they are all engaged in a serious form of inquiry. Being wrapped up in books they are all trying to become wise.