Category Archives: Literary Matters

My Recent Visit to the Bookstore

If there is one thing the editor of the Catholic Review of Books is obsessed about it is bookstores. He doesn’t only obsess over them for sake of the books he wishes to read, but he is fascinated by them as sociological statements. Expect several essays to appear on the subject of the bookstore in time to come.

My visits to Canada’s sole big box store book store is always a time of amusement, bemusement, happiness and dismay. Although I am talking about a Canadian store, I don’t imagine I would feel any differently about the US equivalents.

I love books. I love learning. I love the written word almost regardless of the subject to which it is directed. I spend most of my time in the Christianity, history and biography sections; surprisingly little in fiction/literature; I also enjoy the philosophy and poetry/literary theory sections. I never go to the self-help, cookbook or bestseller shelves. When you prize something so greatly – and here I mean the acquisition of knowledge – you cannot help but form definite opinions on things relating to it and be quite prickly with regard to how you feel it is being treated by others.

Generally speaking, the people who work in these stores aren’t your rank-and-file idiots, although not generally scholars either. They are about the least you would expect from someone working in retail, if not a bit more than that. I can speak with all due humility about rank-and-file idiots because I have myself been one: one time I worked in the plumbing department at a building supply store. There’s no shame in it, it’s just bad for business. The clerks are obviously told to take interest in books when they are dealing with customers. It shows. And that’s good.

But I don’t want to talk about the store itself here as much as I want to talk about the books themselves. I’ve written before about the poor offerings customary at these stores. Now I want to talk a little bit about what makes for a good book (or a bad book.)

It is my opinion that perhaps 80% of the books that are written need not to have been written, and I am being quite liberal here. ‘Need’ is a particularly ambiguous term. I will here define it as something that in any way has the capacity to make someone better for having read it. But even ‘poor literature’ can be good – like sappy religious literature that is in some sense inspiring. Poorly constructed fiction can be good too, in that some ‘uneducated’ pallets might enjoy it – children, for instance – and be edified by it.

Books today are more driven by commercial factors than ever today. Despite the digitization of life, books still constitute a huge market. For instance, in the relatively modest market that is Canada, in 2012, over 50 million printed copies were sold, which made almost a billion dollars. Big money can be made. The Harry Potter brand is valued at about $15 billion, which includes nearly half a billion books sold. A mere fraction of that would be still be very lucrative.

So, how to make money from books? – ask the writers and publishers. Even publishers and writers that are interested in education, edification, evangelization, and entertainment still need to worry about profitability. In my field of Augustinian Studies, one will note that every few years a new edition of Confessions is released while others of his books have still not yet been translated into English. Why? Confessions makes money. Professors use it in their courses. And yet not one of the translation made in the last thirty years has been in any sense required. Many of them are good, believe me, but necessary? – no.

Money effects what is written and how it is published or presented. I’ve noticed that some old books are slightly updated or revised to make them appear either new or better. They do it with toothpaste, so why not with books? Today I was going to purchase a copy of Epictetus’ Handbook (Enchiridion) which was published with the title “Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness” (see illustration). But as I am no expert on Epictetus, I wasn’t sure what I would be getting here, so I didn’t take the risk by buying it. I don’t like abridgments and there was no real indication from this book itself epictetuswhether this was the full text or not. Judging from the Oxford University edition, the Handbook is a very small text and so this version likely contains the whole of it, but you can get it in an Oxford U P edition where it takes up but 30 pages. In Art of Living, HarperOne makes a whole book out of it of 144 pages. It does this by enlarging the print and printing but one small paragraph per page. I call that a shameless money grab. Caveat emptor? Not if the Catholic Review of Books has anything to say about it!

A previous trip to the bookstore, in this case, with a pre-teen accompanying me, taught me that another great way to make money off of books is to do what they do with movies and TV: make another version of something that’s popular. And so we enter the realm of young reader dystopian fiction, which seems to consist in little more than reiterations of The Hunger Games. Earlier it was reiterations of Harry Potter and Twilight. Originality might pay off but there is far more risk involved. Hence, the endless stream of superhero movies.

Another way in which inflating profit deflates the quality of books lies with sham-scholarship. Take the most popular books on religion and those colorful and controversial aspects of history like Nazism. Sometimes these are one in the same: books on the Crusades, the inquisitions, ‘alternative Christianities,’ etc. Since I have spoken about this before I will just mention it here in passing. There are many great studies out there on these important topics. The problem with the bad ones (usually written in a larger font, with a provocative title and a tantalizing cover picture) is that they drown out the good ones.

And then there is an altogether special brand of book: the pointless, “here’s my unlearned opinion about some stuff” book. These are the kinds of books that airheads buy, or people buy for other people who either have no interests at all, whose interests defy description, or cannot think outside of the frame of pop culture. Examining Amazon’s bestsellers, one comes across “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” for instance, as well as a cookbook entitled, “Thug Kitchen.” Is one surprised to find among Amazon’s ‘Hot New Releases’ a book entitled “Effortless Healing”? One might also find listed there “Team Dog: How to Train Your Dog the Navy Seal Way,” “Everyday Supermodel,” “The Food Babe Way,” and “Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome.” I really don’t need to say anything about these, do I?

Have you ever wondered why used books stores are better than these big chain stores? I will tell you why: the absence of the pointless, “here’s my unlearned opinion about some stuff” books. Why are they absent? No one has yet considered them worthy of preserving. They are produced because they appeal to a certain type of superficial mind-seeking-depth but they have no staying power, no lasting appeal, since they have no quiddity, as the Scholastics might have said: they are not much more than random assortments of words.

Perhaps next time I’ll write about the pictures of people that appear on the covers of biographies. You know, pictures of people like Trudeau, Hillary Clinton, Einstein, and, yes, best of all, Steve Jobs.


He must be deep: look how his thumb is on his chin.

All I Wanted for Christmas

By: Colin Kerr

Any father would want health for his children and happiness for his wife most of all. Thank God that, for as much as these two things are possible in this vale of tears, both of these were received this year.

This father would also want books. This is what I ask for dormmost Christmases. This year my wife was particularly successful and chose these three great books: On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies, translated and introduced by Brian Daley (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), St. Germanus of Constantinople, On the Divine Liturgy (SVSP, 1999), and Karl-Josef Kuschel, Laughter: A Theological Reflection (Continuum, 1994). I had never heard of the latter, but it looks quite interesting, as it surveys perspectives on laughter from Homer all the way up to Umberto Eco, with the Bible playing a big role in between. I can’t say much more about it at this point, since I haven’t read it yet. The other two will be winners, as is everything from SVSP. I love the Fathers, as you know. Now I have about a dozen of the cute and yet incredibly valuable books of that publisher’s “Popular Patristic Series.”

You will remember St. Germanus from my post on the feast of St. John Damascene and the Iconoclastic Controversy. As for the homilies on Mary’s Dormition (or sleep, i.e. death), this substantial volume contains homilies from both St. John Damascene and St. Germanus as well as from St. Andrew of Crete and others.

I also gave myself a present – actually two presents – during my visit to Ottawa yesterday, which included my mandatory visit to my favorite used bookstore in that city, Book Bizarre. What would a man like me pick up who already possesses far more books than he’ll likely be able to read in the near future, especially when this particular bookstore contains so many treasures? Well, I purchased Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts (Ignatius, 1999) and P. N. Furbank, Diderot: A Critical Biography (Knopf, 1992).

The former likely requires no explanation from me for why I purchased it, other than for why I would purchase this book when Ignatius Press is so generous to me, regularly sending me so many of its germanusgreat books to review? The simple answer: I really want to read it and don’t want to wait and hope that they will send it to me. The second choice requires some comment. I find the ‘Enlightenment’ fascinating. Its intellectual curiosity and, frankly, naivety, with respect to the religion and morality anyway, fascinate me. Diderot was, of course, one of the most influential (and naïve) figures associated with this movement. I like to read deeply about every aspect of our cultural history, but this one is obviously very directly pertinent to the cultural war we face today.

Suffice it to say that I shall review all of these books for you in due time. And perhaps I should get in the habit of regularly reminding you that I can’t do this without your financial support, whether that is by means of taking out a subscription to the Review or by making a donation. You can do either through this website. Or, consider mailing a check, if that is your preference. Let’s have a culturally-rich and faithfully-Catholic New Year! And help me to do what I can to make that happen…


The Heresy of Underlining

By Colin Kerr


If you look at my bookshelves you will see that most of the new books I have purchased look as if they haven’t been read. A great many of them have been read, I am just very careful with how I treat them. I would like to believe that the books I have spent money on are worth every cent and more, so why not treat them as gingerly as I would the currency I used to pay for them? Of course, I buy a great number of used books and I treat these fairly delicately too. I don’t mind buying a used book. A worn book has a certain charm of its own. I don’t like highlighting and underlining, though. When I see stuff like this in books while scouring my favourite used books stores it is almost a foregone conclusion that I am not going to buy them.

I wouldn’t say I worship books. My wife might feel otherwise. And yet, the editor of that great Canadian publication, Catholic Insight, once called me an iconoclast because of what I did to books. During my stint as the librarian of a small Catholic college, much to his chagrin,  I was uncompromising in my practice of removing the jackets from the books I cataloged. Even though it is true that sometimes the dust jacket is the best thing about the book, they are nevertheless extremely annoying when it comes to sticking on bar-codes and spine labels and all that. I felt I owed it to whomever would succeed me as librarian there to do that. And I did worse things than that: I even threw some books in the garbage. Not every book is a good book; some deserve the trash. I threw out books, though never for ideological reasons: libraries are supposed to enable the great critical enterprise that is university education, and a library can only aid in that when it includes books of a great number of persuasions. I threw them out when they reached a certain level of decay, whether from mildew that resulted from improper storage or binding that had fallen apart, etc. Some of this caused me anguish, however, most time my heart was free.

But let’s go back to that other level of crime that has always exercised me: yes, I mean underlining.

I spent a decade-and-a-half as a university student, and, every year since then either teaching, researching or a combination of the two. In other words, I know universities, their libraries and books as few others do. Let me point out a few things I have observed about this phenomenon of underlining.

1) 90% of underlining occurs in the first 10% of the book,

2) 50% of the things underlined do not serve the goal that underlining is meant to serve: epitomizing the author’s theses and singling out other crucial facts,

3) because of (1) and (2), we can safely conclude that the vast majority of underlining, let’s say 99% give or take, is done by undergrads, really, really undergrads, who really don’t know what they are doing,

4) because of (1), (2), and (3) we can conclude that underlining is not an effective learning technique, so don’t do it. Especially not in pen, in a book that you do not own.

Facts 1-4 all applied to a so-called friend of mine who borrowed my biography of Hitler in the second year of my undergrad. I am still working towards forgiveness.

Now, these four facts are not always the case, just most often, as I’ve indicated. In fact, you might be surprised to hear that I too underline, though I mostly annotate (write little notes or introduce other markings into the margins). And, I do it in pencil only, and I only do this in books that are a part of my research, or for my reviews in The Catholic Review of Books.

Annotating is a part of our proud Catholic tradition. After all, if you would care to read it—as perhaps no one else has—my doctoral thesis was about St. Augustine’s Adnotationes in Iob, the marginal notations that Augustine wrote on his copy of the Book of Job. In fact, my research determined that the copy of Job he wrote in was the copy that St. Jerome had sent to him, which Augustine eventually lost! And they say scholarship is boring!

I think we should stop for a second and realize something: no matter how much your books cost you, you cannot even conceive of how much books cost before the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century. So bear that in mind if you are too quick to call writing in books a kind of sacrilege…

Now, Augustine wasn’t the only person who wrote in books. The Medievals took it to a whole new level, with ‘the gloss.’ This is just a fancy word for writing notes in books. Certain glosses on the Bible were gathered up, and, as in the case of Augustine’s Notes on Job, were turned into their own book. The most important of these collections of notes on the Bible is fittingly called the Glossa Ordinaria, or ‘Standard Notes.’ This book became quite authoritative in Scholastic Scriptural study – for instance, Aquinas quotes the Glossa Ordinaria all over the place. It possessed as much authority for him as Augustine or Aristotle. Medievals loved tradition; it was quintessence of authority. But of course, unlike most of the underlining of undergrads, the writers of these glosses—whoever they actual were—made important contributions.medieval

I have only one noteworthy experience with a ‘glosser.’ One day I happened to be reading through a copy of Plato’s Laws. It was well marked-up. But, because of what I had come to realize about those who write in books, I didn’t pay any attention to these markings at first. Then I slowly started to notice something. There was something more here. These jottings were actually quite smart. I flipped to the front of the book to see if anyone had written their name in the book, as people often do. Yes, someone had written their name there. This book had been none other than Peter Kreeft’s, the well-known Catholic intellectual. I hadn’t really read anything by Kreeft at that point, just a few pages of some of his stuff here and there. It was these jottings that made me realize that he wasn’t just a Catholic celebrity posing as a scholar, as I have always supposed some of our celebrities are. No, he actually deserves the praise he has received. I was impressed by the quality of his ‘reactions’ to the text. I was impressed by the fact that he obviously took the text seriously. In other words, Kreeft reads to learn and to engage with the author, not merely in order to knock another title off his list of ‘must-reads.’ This small thing was all the proof I needed in order to know that Kreeft must be a great teacher: after all, he was a great student.

What Kreeft did in that copy of The Laws was more than merely forgivable; it was commendable. Scholarship is often a lonely road. There are few mentors out there, and these are not easy to come by. Reading Kreeft’s notes was one of the few, very few, lessons I ever received from another scholar about what scholarship is, and about how great ideas are to be approached.marginalia

One often hears that great books deserve to be read more than once. I always laugh when I read those passages in Augustine’s letters where he is upbraiding people for not reading his books carefully enough, and then scolding them for asking question that anyone who who had actually read the book carefully would know the answer to.

One should never ask, have you read this book? One should ask, do you know this book?

A pristine text is a fine thing. Again, I have many on my shelves. The question is, how many of these have I managed to imprint on my soul?