On the Push for Paperless and Revisiting Used Book Stores

I like to see students tote real books about. All that classrooms need are a teacher, students, a blackboard, and something to read or think about.

“So much more useful by far than iPads and Google, are chalkboards, blackboards, bookshelves, No. 2 pencils, workbooks, and wooden desks.” — Peter Augustine Lawler, “Getting Technology Out of the Classroom”, from Allergic to Crazy (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2014), p. 242.

A grand-niece of mine is in high school. She tells me that all of her assignments are online. They have no books. Her father, my nephew, is a high-tech man, first-class. He has long been an advocate of the paperless society. Everyone today, it seems, is armed with a cell-phone, iPad, Kindle, and certainly a computer. In China alone, I read recently, 600 million people are online. Such tools make possible instantaneous communication with anyone, anywhere, at any time of day or night. Such instruments also bring to life almost any book ever written in any language, as well as movies, theater, and music of all kinds. My Chinese niece-in-law in Maryland frequently sees and talks to her sisters in their front rooms in their homes in mainland China. 

We are literally awash in knowledge and visual sights of almost every kind.

Online or digital materials are no doubt much lighter and more convenient to store, carry, and ship. As long as batteries or electricity is available, they work quite silently and smoothly. When I moved to the West Coast a couple of years ago, I had to downsize my accumulated books. To pack, give away, or otherwise dispose of books is no easy task. Books have weight. Lots of books have lots of weight. Shipping books is not free. If the same books were online, they would weigh practically nothing. In many cases, online material is easier to read. It can quickly be adjusted to one’s own needs. All records and documents from birth to death are online. Genealogy is a big thing online. People want to know from whom and from whence they came. The information of the medical and legal professions is all online, with immediate availability. Doctoral dissertations now need to reference the online sources of research. Business, warehousing, shipping, antiques, flying, horse-race betting, you name it, are run by such techniques. One would be hard pressed to wish it out of existence.

So what is Schall doing still writing of second-hand book stores? I am in agreement with Peter Augustine Lawler: get all this technology out of the classroom. I like to see students tote real books about. All that classrooms need are a teacher, students, a blackboard, and something to read or think about. Thinking is not simply finding facts.

But are not used bookstores also obsolete? Well, second-hand book stores are also a market for second-hand music records and books on tape. But still an amazing number of books are produced each year throughout the world. In some sense, the printed book remains the standard. A published volume is still something you can pick up, look at, write notes in, keep on a shelf, read, and reread. I know you can do all these things, more or less, with online books. Hopefully, the generation of my grandniece, the one that does not come across a book in school, will not be deprived of what Al Capp once called “book learning”.

I had heard of a used book store on Castro Street in Mountain View, the heart of Googleland. It is a couple of city storefronts long. Inside, it also has new books, but stacks and stacks of used books, both hardback and paperback. It had shelves that you had to kneel down to see, others that required a ladder. The books were classified alphabetically by author’s last name and types—science-fiction, romance, how-to, history, philosophy, and so on. It also had some “recent arrivals” and inexpensive odds and ends.

Actually, I was looking for some P.G. Wodehouse. Except for an early volume of Jeeves’ essays, owned by a former student who lives across the way from us in the Los Gatos hills, I could not find any Wodehouse among my confreres. The book store in Mountain View had exactly two Wodehouse novels, of the hundreds that he wrote. This seemed either to be a decline of civilization or, more positively, a proof of his abiding popularity. The two novels were both Penguin paperbacks. One was from 1919, entitled A Damsel in Distress. The cover pictures two very English gentlemen in a “Tea Shop” named “Ye Cozy Nooke”

We are immediately introduced to the cast of characters associated with “that historic pile Belpher Castle, in the county of Hampshire.” The Earls of Marshmoreton, have evidently owned this “pile” since the “fifteenth century”.

I may briefly remark that the present Lord Marshmoreton is a widower of some forty-eight years; that he has two children, Percy Wilbraham Marsh, Lord Belpher, who is on the brink of his twenty-first birthday, and a daughter, Lady Patricia Maud Marsh, who is just twenty, that the chatelaine of the castle is Lady Caroline Byng, Lord Marshmoreton’s sister, who married a very wealthy colliery owner, Clifford Byng, a few years before his death (which unkind people say she hastened), and that she has a stepson, Reginald.

Any casual reader of Wodehouse will already be able to spot here the characters of a Wodehouse plot.

The second Wodehouse novel is entitled The Return of Jeeves and is dated 1953. It says that it used to belong to the “Mitchell Park Library”.I figure that any library that gets rid of a Wodehouse is not a very good one. (Actually, the Mitchell Park Library, as I looked it up online, is in Palo Alto, and will be reopening in December. And, of course, it is going to feature thousands of ebooks, eaudiobooks, ejournals, and digital musical files.) The bookstore also had a series of about six handsome hardbound volumes that contained a “sermon” of Bertie or somebody. These volumes proceeded to reproduce the same sermon in every language imaginable into which it had been translated. Literally dozens and dozens; I was amazed.

Also there was another small volume of three essays evidently in homage to Wodehouse on the 100th anniversary, in 1983, of his birth in 1883. It was presented before the Queen. In this volume was a lecture of Malcolm Muggeridge in which he recounted the tale of his assignment as a British Intelligence Officer to investigate in Paris the accusation that Wodehouse was a traitor for broadcasts that he had made from a prison camp in Poland during WWII. Muggeridge could not see anything treasonous about them though they were probably innocent and naïve about what the Nazis would do with them. Because of this, I believe, Wodehouse went to America and did not return to England for some years.

Well, obviously, I learned something from this book store. I also found the following books, which I purchased. I will conclude this essay simply by listing them; each is a book I hope to read someday. If I do not get to it in this lifetime, it is all right, as no one can read everything ever written. Yet to miss reading any good book is the loss of an adventure that we might otherwise have had, a vicarious one in our lives that teach us the limits of what we can know. The books are:

1) The Penguin edition of Arnold Bennett’s 1907 novel, The Grim Smile of the Five Towns
2) Edgar Pangborn’s Dell 1953 edition of West of the Sun
3) Liu T’ieh-yūn’s Travels of Lao Ts’an,a Columbia University 1990 paperback Modern Asian series
4) Walter Pater’s Modern Library edition of Marius the Epicurean
5) Scribner’s paperback edition of Edith Wharton’s 1922 novel, Glimpses of the Moon

As I said, this used book store had thousands and thousands of books of every species and hue. It was not the Library of Congress, which contains some 32 million catalogued volumes. But a visit to a used book store remains both a humbling experience and an exhilarating one—humbling to be reminded of how much you do not know, exhilarating to find there something that you would like to know and read. 

Both feelings are part of the human experience in which we rejoice both in what we know and what we do not know. No experience that I know takes us closer to immortality, to Aristotle’s definition of mind as that which is capable of knowing all that is.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.