I have heard that when charitable organizations wish to freely teach English as a Second Language in other countries, their offer is not taken seriously unless they charge for their services. In the marketplace, folks pay more for what is less common. As a result, we tend to assign value to something related to its cost.
I’ve been a bibliomaniac for a while now. I believe that it started when I attended Virginia Tech and was an associate member of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church. Having grown up in the Evangelical Methodist Church, attending Grace was my first introduction to the richness of Reformed thought. Grace had a book table in the back after every service with a smattering of books supplied by the Puritan-Reformed Discount Book Service. It was then that I began getting their catalog and started building my library through mail order.
But even though I still love books, three things have happened that have changed my relationship with books.
1 – The Internet
It’s now less necessary than it used to be for me to purchase books. Just this past weekend I was in a local Christian bookstore looking at a small Church History dictionary that was reasonably priced. But I didn’t purchase the reference book because I realized that I could find out what I needed about Church figures and organizations through well crafted google searches or through Wikipedia.
2 – The iPod
As I’ve mentioned before, Beth and I are blessed to live in a county with the second best library in the nation. Now that unabridged audio books are available on CD, I can get them from the library, import them into my iTunes, return the CDs to the library, listen to the books while I’m commuting, washing the dishes, taking out the trash, exercising, etc. and then delete the books from my iPod after I’ve finished listening to them.
3 – Free Books
My relationship with books also changed when unsolicited Christian books started arriving at my doorstep. Somehow through my paid writing gigs, my blog, my associations, or some combination of the above, I’ve gotten on one or more lists where publishers and public relations folks just send me free books as they’re published or about to be published. And then things really got crazy when one day a major Christian publishing company contacted me and basically said that anytime I wanted any book that was in their catalog, all I needed to do was ask. (While I realize not everyone has this “problem,” it’s nevertheless true that in the developed world books are very inexpensive and easily obtainable.)
Suddenly I literally have about 150 books on my book shelf that I haven’t finished reading yet. And what’s really sad is that I still buy books.
I’ve realized that such a surfeit of books might lead us not to appreciate them as much.
In the past, however, because information was so expensive, it was all the more valued and – in some cases – regarded more consistently with its intrinsic value. I was struck by this when I recently read this passage in Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s wonderful recent book on Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet called Team of Rivals:
Lincoln was “allowed to attend school only ‘by littles’ between stints of farmwork, ‘the aggregate of his schooling,’ Lincoln admitted years later, ‘did not amount to one year.” … What he had in the way of education, he lamented, he had to pick up on his own.
Books became his academy, his college. The printed word united his mind with the great minds of generations past. Relatives and neighbors recalled that he scoured the countryside for books and read every volume ‘he could lay his hands on.” At a time when ownership of books remained ‘a luxury for those Americans living outside the purview of the middle class,’ gaining access to reading material proved difficult. When Lincoln obtained copies of the King James Bible, John Bunyan‘s Pilgrim’s Progress, Aesop’s Fables, and William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, he could not contain his excitement. Holding Pilgrim’s Progress in his hands, ‘his eyes sparked, and that day he could not eat, and that night he could not sleep.'”
When printing was first invented, Lincoln would write later, ‘the great mass of men…were utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement.’ To liberate ‘the mind from this false and under estimate of itself, is the great task which printing came into the world to perform'” (emphasis mine, links added, p. 51).
Goodwin recounts Lincoln’s hard scrabble upbringing as he grew up in a home where his father could only write his name and concludes, “It was through literature that he was able to transcend his surroundings. ”
This made me wonder if sometimes our embarrassment of riches when it comes to the information that we in the developed world have at our fingertips might sometime lead us to confuse the declining cost of information with its intrinsic value.