Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Life inside a Book Store - Why I Started the Catholic Review of Books

Things are progressing very well. I hope that the website will be up and running in just a few days. The first edition of the printed journal will be out in January.

I want to express very clearly why I wanted to do all of this. I think, though the reasons are myriad, something of the reason can be grasped through an image: the image of the big bookstore as it exists today. In Canada, think of Chapters. In the US, you have more versions - Barnes and Nobles, would be the biggest - but they are generally all the same.

As I've said many times, my life is books. More accurately, my life is ideas, but books (along with prayer) are the way that I like to engage them. In my youngest reading days I liked science fiction and adventure books like Farley Mowat's. By about fifteen, my mind turned more to history than to fiction, but I started to read the classics too - Tolstoy, Dickens, etc. Theology and philosophy were added and eventually took centre-stage. As a boy, and especially as a young man, I was looking for more. I was looking to be engaged by something significant, something deeper, by someone deeper. I found this desire stoked importantly by Plato, who has stayed with me since then. Eventually everything just seemed to point to Christ, and I became Catholic at seventeen. My reading and looking didn't stop then, rather it became magnified and more focused. My desire for engagement remains, not as if it were a barren thirst, but the way one is supposed to feel after the appetizer or aperitif. I thirst and hunger because I have been nourished. I am a living plant who roots reach out for water.

Around the time of my baptism I was struck by three immense things: Augustine's Confessions, The Little Flowers of St. Francis (the Fioretti) and Tolstoy's religious writings. The impact of these things was overwhelming, and it is amazing to reflect on the sequence and the timing by which God does these things. Literature and ideas still amaze me, still overpower me, still have the power to reshape me. But I had no guidance other than the unintelligible workings of providence. I don't think it has to be that way. Although I am not always - rather, hardly ever - comfortable with the idea, God has made me a guide for others. That was the point in all of this. To rephrase a saying of Augustine's, I am a Christian with you, but a theologian and intellectual for you (and for me).

But the bookstore is greater than me. I don't know how many volumes you'll find in one of these big box stores, like Chapters or Barnes and Nobles - a hundred thousand, perhaps two? - in that scale anyway. (I became pretty good at guessing these things after having worked as a librarian for a few years.) The point is, there is a lot to know. No one person can have the kind of awareness to guide another person through the whole store and beyond. When I want a good book in Medieval History, I ask my friend, Ryan; St. Thomas, my friend, Kevin; computers, my cousin, Morgan; anything British or Canadian, my friend, Peter; children's lit, I ask my friend, Frances; anything Eastern Christian, my new friend, Adam; anything New Testament, my friend Terry. And I have a great deal to share too.

I wanted to provide a place where a Catholic can go and get some useful suggestions about any matter of reading. The finest of God's gifts to me have often come in the form of books. I have wasted some time on bummers too - all manner of polemic disguising itself as history, for instance. I want the Catholic Review of Books to help with that too. These big box stores can mislead as much as they can serve.

And, why not subscribe to the Review? When you see a sixteen-year-old boy who looks like me, sans the goatee, anxiously and awkwardly looking through stacks of history books, or perhaps in the philosophy, religion or literature sections of one of these bookstores, pass a copy on to him. You just might be bringing him along on his journey to Christ.

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  1. I tell you what: they had a book-fair recently at my sons' elementary school and what a waste-land of frivolous garbage (okay, hasty judgment there, but that's how it seemed). And my son was the only person who didn't buy something. A book-fair - especially at a Catholic school - should serve as a great opportunity to transmit cultural treasures and promote the cultivation of young minds, and the opportunity just gets wasted. Somebody should really try to do something about this... (hem hem, Dr. Kerr).

  2. I can't believe that I am only just seeing this comment now! Grrr. Yes, David - just my point for the necessity of this project! I have heard so many parents talking about how to find out about good books for young readers, etc. This is an important job. I want to be the Steven Greydanus of books! lol.