Monday, October 7, 2019

Dismantling a Scholar's Library

Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Eccl 12:12, RSV).

A true statement! But it tells only half the story. Much study may weary the “flesh,” but it encourages the spirit and enlightens the mind.

When you come bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments (2 Tim 4:13, RSV).

We need books and, as the writer of this statement notes, we collect them. We cannot hold everything in mind, but if we can remember the book, we can find therein, precisely stated, the information our brain only half remembered.

Shapan read [the book] before the king. And when the king heard the words of the book of the law, he rent his clothes (2 Kgs 22:10-11, RSV).

Books can regenerate a community; books change the course of one’s life. Hence there is little wonder that we find libraries to be essential.

            Sometimes books become a difficulty, however, especially when one finds it necessary to change one’s residence. For then one discovers a large library collection is a major problem, as I recently have been made aware. We waited entirely too long to begin downsizing in preparation to move near children who would be able to assist us in our advanced years (she, 83; me 85)—the child becomes the father of the man! Our 39 years in Springfield, Missouri had seen us gather through inattention a mass of “stuff”: luggage, brief cases, photos, pictures, clothing gathering dust in closets, “stuff” at the bottom of stacks of other “stuff,” office material, mementos, et cetera and so forth.

            In my case there were also several thousand volumes of books collected over a lifetime of professional study of religion, which included a 30 year teaching career. Unfortunately there is little interest among the American public for technical books written in Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, French and German—the languages one must master to be granted membership into the guild of New Testament scholars. What does a scholar* do near the end of life with a well-worn research library, especially when University libraries are reducing their collections of print media and increasing their electronic media. Journals are now online (so I tossed out all my journals), as are certain major works of the previous generations of scholars. In short, as a collection my library is an unwanted commodity with no real financial value.

            That prompts the question what does a critical scholar of religion leave behind when his library is not valued? That valuation seems to pass over also onto his published books and articles. Had I been an architect, my legacy would have been written in buildings of mortar and stone that passed into the next century; were I a physician I might have perfected a new surgical technique or discovered a new cure for the many illness of humankind; were I a lawyer I might have been survived by legal briefs that inspired laws improving the common lot. A critical scholar of religion, however, leaves behind books and articles that may or may not even find a place in the history of scholarship; if fortunate they may find shelf space in libraries and used book stores. Should the guild make it so, a scholar during his career might have discovered what becomes accepted solutions to nagging problems in New Testament Studies, or perhaps raise new questions about the discipline. Discovering new problems for the guild to ponder would have been a singular achievement—for solutions come and go but the enduring questions of New Testament Study seem to have a very long life for those who read with a critical spirit (for example, did Q really exist or is it doomed forever to be a scholar’s invented [hypothetical] source for partially explaining differences between the Synoptic Gospels).

            What then should I do with my professional library if I cannot sell it or donate it as a collection? Here is what I did: I invited a few of my local colleagues and former students to come by and select whatever they wanted from the collection after I had packed what I regarded as the basic tools of my discipline (I included few commentaries and specific studies) for moving to a much smaller home. I offered this in the interest of finding my books a good home. My books are good friends and have served me well in the past 50 years, or more and still have good years remaining. What books remain on my shelves when they have finished their selections will regrettably be abandoned to their fate in the estate sale—a sad ending! But endings are accompanied by new beginnings. What’s next?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*A scholar is one who has done advanced study in a special field, and is guided in his/her studies by the spirit of criticism: that is, to make judgments in the light of evidence.

15 comments:

  1. Hi Charlie,

    So glad your having the opportunity to move closer to family. I also experienced the library quandary when I retired, but not anywhere close to the volume you had to deal with. But, of course, much to our benefit, since you chose the occupation of scholar, there's no such thing as retirement.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. I agree completely, Gene. Everyone considering retirement should give serious consideration to what they will do in retirement that is productive.
      Charlie

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  2. Though I am unhappy at the thought of you not being available to meet me for a salad at MSU as often, I am relieved that you and Peggy will soon be closer to your daughters who can be attentive to you both. I am looking forward to picking through the bones of your library to add important volumes to my own collection but even more to hold onto a piece of my old friend who has been important to my own evolution of thinking, and an inspiration to keep writing and struggling to "eff" the ineffable.

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    1. Thanks Roger!
      I know that you will put them to good use. I enjoyed the wine and the chat yesterday.
      Charlie

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  3. Charlie, this strikes close to home! I retired officially on August 1, and clearing out the campus office I had occupied for 30 years was a gigantic operation. (39 years total at the institution--41 years total in the higher ed biz.) Besides the wall to wall books there were shelves full of photocopied journal articles and three file cabinets of paperwork going all the way back to 1972, my first year of grad school. In my case, I got lucky. An online bookseller whose name you would recognize was willing to drive 160 miles to my campus to pick up 44 boxes of my books, plus 25 additional boxes of books collected by my department over the decades. A huge amount of paper, including all of my print journals, was recycled. A number of books went home to my study there, which is blessed with generous built-in shelves, so I will be surrounded by a respectable library to the end of my days. Whew! Once Deb and I can get the kinks out of our new Medicare coverage, maybe I can start reading books again! That's my plan!

    All the best to you and your family in the new surroundings.

    Bob Fowler

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    1. Good Morning Bob,
      Not just reading, I trust, but putting pen to paper and immortalizing in print all those ideas that have been fermenting in your brain through the years, which you never had time to develop.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  4. The bond with our books over a lifetime is hard to express, but you do it so well, Charlie. I salute you for finding good homes for so many of them. Over the years, I had the honor and privilege of dealing with a number of colleagues' libraries, and I often found myself wishing for an apt liturgy as I began to dismantle what had taken a lifetime to assemble. The New York Times published some of these thoughts: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/30/books/review/handled-with-care.html

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    1. Hi Andy,
      Thanks for weighing in. I would like to read your comments could you send me the longer version of your comments?
      Thank you,
      Charlie

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  5. Charlie,

    While the books may not continue to have a place on your shelf, the impact that you have had on colleagues and students will live on indefinitely.

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    1. Thank you. It is a very welcome compliment but indefinitely is an awfully long time.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  6. Good Evening Charlie,

    My husband (your former student Craig) and I met one another in Kansas City in 1993 and were married there in 1997. We lived in Grandview actually, and I'm still kicking myself for not visiting the Truman farm home where he grew up and where he resided when he met his wife Bess.... I do remember being amazed in McCullough's biography that it took eight hours for him to drive from Grandview to Independence to visit her- back when the roads where dirt and not well maintained. There is much to see and do in KC... I hope you will be very happy there. We moved to St. Louis in 2002 when our son was born.

    I was sad to read that Universities are downsizing their print media. I find it very draining and difficult to do my reading electronically... It's a much "colder" medium. I prefer the warmth of a book and the convenience and satisfaction of turning pages- it adds to the richness of the experience of reading. As a matter of fact, I collect rare books... It is surprisingly affordable compared to other types of collections. Especially since society does not value physical books anymore- makes the collection all the more appealing to me. I cannot believe my luck in finding such rare treasures for such affordable prices, I have no idea how I got so fortunate. It was not by design. I love old books because it's like holding a piece of history right in your hands- you open up an entire world of thoughts, experiences, emotions, and most of all, stories.... Stories that take me to another time and place and leave me breathless at times. Just ask my husband- I often read passages to him before falling asleep because they are exciting and unbelievable and too amazing to keep to myself. It's wonderful having someone next to me to share them with. I mostly love to read memoirs and journals. My most prized "catch" is a journal by a British woman named Eliza Steele written and published in 1841... I just love holding something printed in 1841 in my hands.

    Can't do that on an iPad.

    1) Do you still read "new" books? What kinds of books appeal to you- do you read fiction for example?
    2) Do you mind reading digitally or do you prefer reading on the printed page?
    3) What is the oldest book you own, that is written in English?
    4) What is your favorite book?

    I wish you health and happiness and as you settle into your new surroundings- I think you and your wife will be very happy there. Getting through the "transition" stage is always the most challenging, so take it slow and don't try to do too much. Many thanks as always, Elizabeth

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  7. I share your feelings about the ipad, and have completely stopped using mine.
    I would have to call my tastes in literature eclectic. I like a lot of different things. I do read fiction. Truth be told I have a fiction book going all the time.
    I prefer the printed page. The only thing I read digitally is the newspaper.
    The oldest book I have written in English (I think) is 1614.
    The transition is a bear but we are getting there. My daughters have been of immense help.
    Cordially,
    Charlie
    I don't really have a favorite book (eclectic tastes).
    Cordially,
    Charlie

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    1. Thank you Charlie... By the way, have you ever given thought to writing your own memoir? There are many different ways to do it- it does not have to cover any certain time period. One of my favorite memoirs took place over a three or four year period during Hal Borland's formative boyhood years on the Colorado plains called 'High, Wide, and Lonesome.' (He was a nature editorialist for the New York Times from 1943 till his death in 1978) Of course, everyone thinks "Oh who wants to read about me and my uninteresting life?? It's so dull and boring." You'd be surprised... In the words of Dora Jessie Saint, "Other people's lives are always interesting... We may only get a passing glimpse, but for that moment- we touch lives." Elizabeth

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    2. Hi Elizabeth,
      I have not given much thought to writing even a selected memoir from my life. However I do plan to write my own Obit. I do however take your point that a biography can be written over time as a series of short memoirs. I will give some thought to doing it. Thanks for the suggestion!
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    3. Good Autumn Evening Charlie,
      I think you'll be surprised how much you will learn from reflecting upion your early youthful experiences and how they led you to the career you enjoyed for so many years... Seemingly insignificant events and people and experiences, upon refection, may stand out in your memory and take on a unique quality that you may have never seen before... But the best state of being to inhabit when embarking upon that inner journey is one of ease and relaxation, so I would wait until the moving and resettling stage is complete- if I were in your shoes, that is. It really is a surprising venture to see what comes to mind when reflecting upon our early influences and impressions back when we had no idea what lay before us. So if nothing else- the process may provide you with clarity and humor and lightheartedness that heretofore was hidden from view. I assure you of this- many people would be keenly interested in reading about your early life and early impressions as a young man growing up in Mississippi... And what led you to becoming the extraordinary scholar and teacher we know and respect and esteem today. Many thanks!! Elizabeth

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