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Lawton Posey: We seem headed into a less bookish future

On my desk lies a book that has seen considerable use by someone in the past. It is in a plain binding, and it is nothing special to look at, really.

A physician friend in Florida is ridding himself of his collection of books by and about the great Baltimore writer Henry L. Mencken. I really wanted a Mencken book, and this one, entitled The American Language, covers issues in which I am most interested.

But it is not about Mencken's subject that I write. It is about books and their value.

Yes, I am aware that many of my friends and some of my family read from screens of electronic devices. Books, to me, are magic things.

About 20 years ago, I began giving away much of my library, some of it to younger ministers who might not have the funds to buy many books. Some of my books have gone to schools in Africa, where books are scarce.

Each giving away has caused me some pain, as I said goodbye to this or that favorite work.

I still have my "Huckleberry Finn," which was the first hard book I ever read. I did not understand the story completely, as I was only 8 when I sat under our pear tree to read about Huck and Jim and  the fake actors on the raft.

I have my father's King James Bible. Some friends I cannot part with yet.

Truth is, I shall at some time leave the remainder of my small library. I have taken courage and recently began the process of saying farewell to a few more volumes.

Indeed, why should I own many books? The libraries have plenty of them.

What is it about books?

My Mencken volume has obviously been read, been used, been an influence not only to the original owner, but perhaps to many others.

So when I pick it up and gaze upon its shabby exterior, I am part of almost 90 years of other people's history.

Recently, a close friend showed me a religious volume, called a missal, which contains the words said only in Latin by Roman Catholic priests in an earlier day. Perhaps this volume dates from the 16th century, or earlier.

I opened it, with my friend's help, to a certain part where the priest begins a great Prayer of Thanksgiving, containing the words, "Lift up your hearts" - in Latin, "Sursum corda."

The pages are greatly stained, probably with oil from the hands of many ministers. Some priest several hundred years ago laid this missal on an altar and began a sacred rite. We do not know his name.

For me, books are valuable. I can smell them. I can touch them. I can feel their lightness or their weight. I can cuddle up with them in bed.

I can put a marker in this or that place. I can keep a finger in one place and read another place. I may have three open at one time.

I am not an antiquarian. I love using the computer. I understand the value of Kindle-like devices.

I envy a friend's ability to look up most things on a machine no larger than a pack of cards.  How wonderful.

Yet it is books that stand at the center of our culture.

At church some still sing out of a book. The sacred words of the service are still read out of a book. Many of us carry a Bible or book of prayers to worship services.

My friend, a rabbi, reads to the congregation from a scroll, using a pointer to stay close to the text. But I have seen a minister speak from a laptop computer on his pulpit, his face illumined by a  strange bluish light.  

A bookless time may be coming, but not for me. Not yet.

Lawton Posey, a retired Presbyterian minister, writes from his home in Charleston.

 


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