Foundational Books

Over the weekend I visited one of my favorite used book stores, The Old Book Shop in Morristown. It’s neither huge nor fancy, but it has the feel that is so important to the restless mind. The feel of not knowing what you may find. The mystery of discovery. As I browsed, it occurred to me that although books of all varieties lodge here, the predominance of the old books tends toward the religious. The books associated with the church have survived for their centuries, closely followed by the classics—what was once considered the purview of the educated. I suppose one might argue that the breviaries, hymnals, and Bibles indicate overprinting on the part of overzealous presses, but I know that’s not the whole story. In fact, until quite recently the educated were expected to be religious as well. There was a kind of humility at work here. Even scientists respected the God who’d put all of this into place. This was not so much overprinting as it was meeting a prevalent need.

In early America, for example, if a household owned a book, it was more than likely a Bible. Bibles existed in profusion due to—putting it most crassly—demand and supply. People wanted to have a Bible. Particularly Protestants who’d been taught that it alone held the key to their salvation. There are some things you just don’t leave to chance. As that era continues to fade and people unload the books they no longer need or want, the Bibles and hymnals and prayer books make their way to antiquaries and I spend my weekends browsing among them and pondering how we came to be in this place.

Education—books—is/are foundational to our society. Books may be messy and lend to clutter, I’m told. In our apartment they climb in stacks alongside overfull bookshelves like ivy up the side of a tower, and yet I find them difficult to release. There’s knowledge here for the taking. The visit to the used bookstore inevitably leads to finds I hadn’t expected. There were no Bibles in my hand as I checked out, but no matter. I’ve got many Bibles at home. I’m aware that building requires foundations. Architecture may change over the centuries, but old foundations remain for millennia. To be educated is to be aware of them and appreciate them for what they are.

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Old Curiosity Shop

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to live in New Jersey eight years without discovering the Old Book Shop in Morristown. Used books represent the opportunity to find things otherwise hidden away, even often from the all-seeing internet. That’s why I visit book sales at any opportunity, and haunt used bookstores. The Cranbury Bookworm, never easy to reach, was denuded of its glory by a greedy landlord and has only a few shelves remaining in a much diminished location. The Montclair Book Center takes a concerted bit of driving from here, but I always enjoy it when I go. Over the weekend, however, the Old Book Shop was my destination. Although it’s not a large space, the books on display are reasonably priced and represent intelligent collecting. I found a book or two on my wish list there, and many more that, were I in a more lucrative line of work, would have come home with me.

One book my daughter found in the science section, Ecce Coelum; or Parish Astronomy, by a Connecticut Pastor, was clearly from the days when science and religion got along better together. A little research revealed the author as Enoch Fitch Burr. What really caught my eye was the dedication, “lectures on astronomy in the interest of religion.” I’m not sure how I managed to leave that book behind, in retrospect. As a layman both in science in religion terms, I have had lifelong interests in both. It’s only been within the last couple of decades that I’ve noticed a growing tension between the siblings. Like all childhood fights, it is a contested matter of who started it. It does trace its roots back to Galileo and Bruno, but more recently to the Creationists and their never-ending campaigns to have their religion christened science. Back when Ecce Coelum was written, science and religion had much to learn from one another.

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Now they no longer speak. Those who believe all answers lie in material explanations treat religion as a mental disease. The conservative religionists call the scientists atheists, as if that were still an insult. Name calling and bad feelings, I don’t believe, will ever lead to the truth. The science of today will eventually find its way into the used bookstores of tomorrow. Religion books have long lined these shelves, reminding me of the day when she was the queen of sciences. She’s often treated as the jester these days. What scientist now declares, “behold the heavens!”? We might actually benefit to a great degree if both the empirical and the ecclesiastical would behold their world with a little more wonder. And tomorrow’s readers will puzzle at our strange hardness of heart.