There comes a time in the life of an over-due library book when its return is met less with fines and looks of disapproval and more with wonder and news-worthy attention. Like the Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant Commander Ron Robb who returned a rare book he had borrowed in London 30 years earlier from the other side of the world.(1) Or Julie Geissler, a New Hampshire resident who stunned library staff members by returning an eighty year overdue copy of Charles Darwin’s popular work.(2) The rare first-edition copy of On the Origin of Species was one of 1,250 originally printed; a similar copy sold the previous year for $194,500.
In the world of rare and missing books, Robb and Geissler’s openhandedness is commended. Robb’s borrowed book was part of a 1928 set estimated to be worth £200. Researchers for Darwin Online estimate that many of the remaining copies of the 150 year old work are in private hands, which may or may not know what they are holding. Conducting the first known census of the first edition, these researchers are hoping to discover the whereabouts and the stories of many others. Science journalist Peter Dizikes discovered of one such copy acquired by the Boston Public Library that it was once owned by Robert Gordon Tatham, a “much respected London doctor who lived from 1829 to 1895, according to his obituary in The British Medical Journal.”(3) Another label indicates the book also belonged at some point to Charles and Mary Lacaita. Charles Lacaita was a member of Parliament in the 1880s, as well as a botanist who lived in West Sussex and came from a family of noted bibliophiles. It is unclear how the book made its way across the Atlantic, but the rich history of ownership and appreciation is clear.
I quite like the idea of a census and family history for books. First editions long distributed from bookstores have no doubt made their winding ways in and out of the lives of readers, lenders, and borrows. Perhaps for some it was a book that simply sat on a shelf or in an attic box, like On the Origin of Species did for Julie Geissler until her mother happened to discover it or Ron Robb until he was in the process of moving. Other copies may have been dearly loved and well worn by one reader, only to be loved all over again by the next.
Looking at the shelves of books that surround me, I wonder what clues will be gleaned of my ownership years after they have all left my hands. There are some indeed that evoke a rich history: a book of sermons written by my great-great-reverend grandfather inscribed to my mother and later inscribed to me on my graduation from seminary, a book on lament purchased on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, text books marked up and down in agreement and disagreement, several first-editions from favorite authors, Bibles filled with epiphanies, occasions, questions, and funeral liturgies. Of course, there are also those books on my shelves that also appear rather homeless, void of marks and underlinings, with bindings that accuse me of never having read them in the first place.
Glancing through my shelves at the rich history that is present, I am also sorely aware of all the history that is conspicuously not present. My most beloved books tend to be books I encourage as many people as I can to read, and again and again I loan them out at the forgotten risk that they will never return and often do not. Of this history, wherever these books might end up, whichever lives they might come to influence, I hold on to the clever thought of C.S. Lewis:
“Yes,” my friend said. “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be books in Heaven. But you will find that your library in Heaven contains only some of the books you had on earth.”
“Which?” I asked.
“The ones you gave away or lent.”
“I hope the lent ones won’t still have the borrowers’ dirty thumb marks,” said I.
“Oh yes they will,” said he. “But just as the wounds of the martyrs have turned into beauties, so will you find that the thumbmarks have turned into beautiful illuminated capitals or exquisite marginal woodcuts.”(4)
Of writing and reading books there is no end, observed King Solomon, admitting a different sort of “unending” about the words of the God who speaks. There is, however, an end to our opportunities with books in this lifetime. If a life can be read in the margins of the books once loved and shared, what stories will your library continue to tell of you? What books will clearly be seen as your most beloved, influential, troubling, full of life? What works, long missing from your library, will continue to influence the lives of those with whom they were shared? On the excited occasions of influential books long forgotten and finally returned, it is curious to imagine with the same fervor which books are far more influential, which words will last well beyond their bicentennial anniversaries, beyond your lifetime and the lifetimes of others long after the book has left your hands.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Matt Watts, “Rare Book returned to Wallington Library 30 Years Late,” Local London, March 12, 2011.
(2) Peter Dizikes, “Digging for Darwin” The New York Times, May 15, 2009, BR23.
d(4) C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, 9Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1970), 216.