What am I saying when I keep a particular book? What am I safeguarding when it is one among hundreds at home and in my office?
Again and again I propose to myself a simplifying of my office book shelves, a thinning, a discarding. This can be preparation, I tell myself, for the day when I will leave what has been my place of employment for over thirty years.
Do I intend taking home all of the books now on my office shelves? By that day – maybe five years away, maybe fewer – when I vacate this beautiful office (and, yes, it is a beautiful office), I will have made some decisions. I will have answered some questions about my life.
And I will possibly have postponed answering others. I will have packed away a book without facing squarely the question it and it alone poses me.
For that is the issue. How definitively am I willing to forgo the pull of the question that a particular book poses? How soon am I willing to forget that that question was once an important one?
What testimony to learning does a 1945 translation of the Georgics bear? How sad if I let myself be no longer reminded of the internment camps in Singapore where former schoolmaster L.A.S. Jermyn translated Vergil a few lines a night! The thin green volume of The Singing Farmer: A Translation of Vergil’s Georgics stays with me.
Hardly irreplaceable, the 1966 paperback The Documents of Vatican II is one of all the books on my shelves that has been longest in my possession. Its red cover identifies it as the early Walter Abbott edition of the documents, more forward-looking and ecumenical in spirit than the 1975 edition by Austin Flannery. What happened to me, to my teachers, to my fellow seminarians in those first years after the Council? That red cover can remind me.
On October 21, 2005, colleagues and I attended a poetry reading at Harvard’s Sackler Museum. The draw was Mary Oliver. The surprise of the evening, though, was a young poet named Kevin Goodan whom Mary Oliver had chosen to read with her. What are the ways that a voice not yet confident breaks your heart when you hear it the first time? I still page through In the Ghost-House Acquainted, listening for Goodan’s voice.
Will a day really come when I no longer want to page through these three books?