Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How many books?

"The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments." 2 Timothy 4:13.

As Spurgeon points out, even an apostle needed books. Paul needed books, more than one book, at least a few. Yet hardly a few thousand when they had to be brought. We emphasise that he needed books not that he was a book addict.

Paul was awaiting his martyrdom just as was Tyndale in 1535 when incarcerated in Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels. He wrote to the prison governor requesting him kindly to let him have his Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar books and a Hebrew dictionary, as well as warmer clothing for the coming winter.

I suffer greatly from cold in the head and am afflicted with perpetual catarrh. I ask to have a lamp in the evening; it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark. Most of all I beg and beseech Your Clemency to urge the Commissary that he will kindly permit me to have the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar and Hebrew dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study.

It was not long before those that were burning his translation of the Scriptures into English were able to have him garrotted and his body burnt at the stake.

The fact that Paul writes "especially the parchments" shows a particular regard for the Scriptures. These he cannot do without. The books may have been his own or those of other men and of particular value but no book has anything approaching the value of the Bible.

Reading has so declined that we can feel it needs all possible emphasis. Spurgeon's application of this verse is very appropriate:
You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible. We are quite persuaded that the very best way for you to be spending your leisure, is to be either reading or praying.

We are well able to stop short of reading real books by skimming information on the internet or reading popular books with no real content and more comfortable with it too. But we are also able to use books in order to avoid the real labour of engaging with the Scriptures for ourselves. Our lives are more than saturated with extraneous information. It doesn't take a professional to diagnose the fact that this deluge washes away our concentration never mind our productivity and creativity. The modern phenomenon of infoglut - being flooded with more information than we can process with the knowledge that there is always more queuing up for us - is not just a data problem it can also be a problem in scanning an overstocked library and thinking that any and every book must be held onto tenaciously "just in case" or because given world enough and time we will actually open its covers one day. Electronic books will probably increase rather than reduce this problem since we can store more and more and the fact that we can access any at instant speed may induce paralysis in deciding which to select.

Books are to be read and used; they're not window dressing or commodities. This brings us to the main point. How many books? Surely no more than necessary. That necessity will be related to our calling.

After sending some more unused books to the attic to join the rest it was providential to come across these reflections here and here. I particularly valued these thoughts:
How many books do you have? If you serve in the first world, the answer is almost certainly more than you need; it’s often more than you can justify; and it’s sometimes more than you can accommodate.

These reflections are more valuable than a cult of minimalism for its own sake (although some attempt at minimalism probably wouldn't hurt most of us). Is it relevant that those that have contributed most probably have had the smallest libraries? ANS Lane points out that "Calvin was very skilled at reading the minimum and making the maximum use of it". Surely that is a minimalism to aspire to. Thomas Boston was someone with an exceedingly scarce library but was nevertheless a powerful theologian. Debates continue as to what books Bunyan had access to, evidently a little more than his Bible and concordance but probably not much more and certainly entirely overshadowed by his use of these as his bibline writings demonstrate.

We are not disparaging books - many have received a blessing for eternity from them. As the Puritans would have put it - we need to be less like the butterfly in flitting from flower to flower and more like the bee in selecting the flowers that will yield most and spending time in extracting what we need. We need to be more selective about what we buy, what we read and why. We need to ask ourselves how this will profit ourselves and others in glorifying and enjoying God aright. Rev. James S. Sinclair wrote that: "The value of good books is not be estimated by their commercial price...The value of good books is to be reckoned according to the amount of moral and spiritual benefit they are fitted to convey to the understanding, heart and life of men. A bargain is only a bargain if it is going to be useful. A interesting set of notes in relation to this is found here. This begins with the searching words of Thomas A Kempis:

When the day of judgment comes, inquiry will not be made of us of what we have read, but what we have done, not how well we have spoken, but how piously we have lived (Imitation of Christ I.3.4).