Alas, second-hand bookshops are closing daily, driven out of business by the combination of a general decline in reading, the internet and that most characteristic of all modern British institutions, the charity shop. Booksellers tell me that 90 per cent of their overheads arise from their shops, and 90 per cent of their sales from the internet. Except for the true antiquarian dealers, whose customers are aficionados of the first state and the misprint on page 287, second-hand bookshops make less and less economic sense. […]
Browsing among the shelves is rewarding in a way that surfing the internet (the largest second-hand books website searches through 140 million volumes for sale, or says it does – I haven’t counted) can never be. Of course, if there is a particular book that you want urgently, the internet is a wonder: you type in the title, you pay by credit card, the book arrives the next day. There is no need any longer to resort to the bookfinder, that strange professional searcher after needles in haystacks, who guards his sources more jealously than any journalist and, I suspect, would not reveal them under torture.
But serendipity is the greatest pleasure of browsing, and there is no substitute for being able to hold the physical book in one’s hand. […]
The joy of finding something that one did not know existed, and that is deeply interesting or connected in a totally unexpected way with one’s intellectual interests of the moment, is one of the great serendipitous rewards of browsing, and one unknown to those who take a purely instrumental view of bookshops, leaving them the moment they discover that they do not have the very book that they want.
–Excerpted from Theodore Dalrymple, “Why Second-Hand Bookshops are Just My Type,” The Telegraph 7:00 AM GMT 03 DECEMBER 2012
In October of 1999, my wife and I visited San Francisco to celebrate our 40th birthdays (serendipitiously,we were born on the same day). We stayed at a lovely place, Hotel Boheme, in the North Beach section of the city, which we picked because of its literary flavor, its ties to the Beat writers, and its promotion of area book shops. We are book collectors – not in a “serious” or professional way, but we love to book shop. On this particular trip, we attended the San Francisco Book Festival – which was okay, but nothing in comparison to our visit to City Lights bookstore along with several other used and antiquarian book shops. Oh, we did other things, too. We went to the San Francisco Art Museum of Modern Art and heard some jazz out on the plaza (I remember that a poor musician cracked his bass while playing a Dexter Gordon tune…sad!). We spent too much time in an art gallery and came dangerously close to buying a $14,000 painting (it would have been paid for via some credit company and would have meant the kids couldn’t have gone to college) – we wisely took a long walk across the Golden Gate Bridge to clear our heads (and never went back to the gallery).
I raise this last recollection in particular to indicate that we have a proclivity to impulse buying. And that leads me to the topic of this post. One evening during this trip we were walking back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner (we were going to an Asian-Fusion place whose name I cannot remember now), and we passed a little used book shop. We cannot resist. The place, as I remember it, was quite small. Just in side the door was one vertical shelf of philosophy books (the primary target of all my book shopping). Now, even back then, I already had a pretty good philosophy library and it was pretty unlikely that I would find anything surprising on the shelves. Yes, books I didn’t own, but not books or authors that I had no idea about. But this day was different. A book on the shelf stood out to me. It was blue cloth (but the smooth, almost leather-like cloth binding you don’t see much anymore) with gold stamping. I had never heard of this book’s author, let alone the book. It was published, I could see on the spine, by The Catholic University of America Press. I confess to a critical affinity to Catholic things, so I picked up the book and flipped it open to a random page. I read and read (as my wife sidled up to remind me we had a dinner reservation and needed to get going – always hard to do in a bookstore). I read some more. I formed a conclusion: I had absolutely NO idea what this philosopher was talking about! Here in my hands was a book, a nice book as an object, pleasant to hold and to look at, whose contents were completely baffling. Of course, I simply had to have it! And so I bought it, dropped it off in my suitcase, and headed to dinner.
Upon returning home, I had one more look at this book, confirmed my incomprehension, and squeezed it onto a shelf among the hundreds (thousands?) of other books I have but have not read. (As I say, I like books. I did not, however, say I read them all. As one wit put it, “We buy books not to read them but to love them.”)
Time passes. I am working at this point for a division of the US Steel corporation on various business process reengineering projects. We get a job in Spain. I am excited. My mom was a Spanish teacher, and I had “studied” Spanish in high school and college, always wishing I were fluent but never diligent enough (or provided with sufficient opportunity) to become so. But perhaps here was an opportunity to work on my poor Spanish at least a little (and it did, bad as it was, come in handy on more than one occasion on the job). In preparation for the trip, I dug out a few Spanish books I had, and coincidentally I noticed my San Francisco purchase, that nice blue book: On Essence by Xavier Zubiri.
I did a quick internet search on “Zubiri.” Okay, first – I admit – I got a little sidetracked by links to pics of actress Diana Zubiri (no relation).
But I eventually collected myself and managed to find out a little about the philosopher. Spanish. Basque, really, and we were headed to Basque country on this job we were doing. I found out that he had written a number of books and that there were books of his course notes published posthumously (he died in 1983). Did I mention that I like books? So I thought maybe, if I got a chance, that I’d check out any bookstores near where we would be working to see if any of this thinker’s books were on their shelves, indeed, whether anyone had ever even heard of this philosopher, even in Spain.
By the way, this job we were doing was scheduled to be a month-long affair, taking us to various cities in northern and eastern Spain. We landed in Aviles airport on September 10, 2001. The next day, as we were having lunch, the universe changed.
It was strange to be so far from home when the attacks happened, frightening to be unable to contact my wife during those first critical hours, touching to be greeted on the job (yes, we tried to keep working) and in the street by Spaniards who treated me as tenderly and compassionately as if they had learned my beloved mother had just died. Everything became disoriented and disorienting, but like people do we kept moving forward, treating the abnormal with a massive dose of normalcy to try to alleviate its effects. We worked. And, when I had a chance, I went to book shops.
I asked around about this guy, “Zubiri”. I wasn’t, of course, at a philosophy conference, but rather in the company of steel manufacturers and engineers. But people have heard about philosophers, no? No, not in this case. Our first stop on the job was in Gijón, which I knew was near Oviedo, which has a university. I drove down one day to check out the book shops, and I did indeed find some of Zubiri’s books (including Sobre la Esencia, the book whose translation I had gotten in San Francisco).
No one in the book shop knew much about him (or at least that was my take-away from Spanglish conversations). But okay: Now I had the Spanish original of the book that I had found incomprehensible in English. The problem is that – have I mentioned this? – my Spanish is poor. How did I think having the Spanish text would help? And all this fuss about a philosopher whom no one (as far as I knew) had ever heard of and whose ideas I could not understand (after what small attempt I had made even to try). Ah, but I like books!
Our next stop took us to Bilbao and to the Basque region. I figured I’d try again, see what other books I might find. I asked around: “Have you heard of Zubiri?” The answers I got surprised me: “Do you mean the Zubiri shoe store? Or the Zubiri market? Or the Zubiri movie theater?”
As it turns out, Zubiri – as unfamiliar a name as it was to me – is quite a common Basque name.
But no one seemed to know about Zubiri the philosopher. I did find some more books, though, in this or that shop. I bought them because now it was simply a matter of collecting the books of this unknown thinker just to have them and just because I had no reasonable expectation of coming back this way again any time soon. I threw my purchases in the ever-more-weighty suitcase, all the while recognizing that I would not take the time to become proficient enough in Spanish to understand them and guessing that even if I did, I would not understand them anyway. It was all about the books themselves. I would treat them, I suppose, as if they were knick-knacks, decorating the walls of our home, and nothing more.
My project teammate and I returned to Pittsburgh 28 days after we left to a mostly empty airport. We were greeted by the customs officials as if we were somehow returning war heroes. In those strange days, people just wanted each other, no matter who they were, to get home to their families. That was all that seemed to really matter.
Truth be told, before all this happened, before we left for this work trip, before 9/11, I had already been considering leaving US Steel. I had very much enjoyed my time there and had learned a lot, but I was starting to feel “hungry” intellectually. I had heard about this job for a program manager for a group called the Philadelphia Center for Religion and Science. The position entailed directing a grant program to foster “the constructive engagement of science and religion,” as its motto put it back then. I had thought that such a job would allow me to apply my business-world experience while getting fed intellectually once more. I didn’t, myself, have a “science and religion problem,” per se. But I thought I’d meet scientists in various fields, theologians, and maybe even some philosophers. I had applied for the job some months before, and in fact I was contacted by PCRS just prior to leaving for Spain. In that interim, though, things had changed at work. I had been tapped to head up this business process assessment initiative and I had made commitments to go to Spain, etc. I couldn’t bring myself to pursue the PCRS job at that time. I told PCRS that I was doing this job that would last a month and that I did not want to hold up their search process but that if they were still interested in a month they could contact me when I got back.
When I finally did arrive home, there was a message from PCRS waiting for me. They were still interested. My wife and I talked this over – as I suppose many people did after the events of 9/11, we were questioning what was important, what really matters, and how we should spend our lives. Neither of us thought it was in business. Both of us found education to be our first love. So I agreed to be interviewed for the PCRS job. I made a deal with the executive director of PCRS that I would use my frequent flier miles to get a ticket to Harvard University, where a conference on science and religion was taking place and at which PCRS was doing some programming. PCRS would put me up in a hotel and could interview me during the conference. Worse comes to worst, I would at least have had the chance to hear an interesting conference on a subject that I had not devoted much thought to. Well, my three-day interview turned into a job.
Allow me to fast-forward. The program, called the Local Societies Initiative (LSI), required me to expand the grant-making to Europe (and eventually around the world). Eventually, a group from Madrid applied for a grant. I had the opportunity to travel there to work with this group, but I made one special stop. I had learned that the Fundación Xavier Zubiri was located in Madrid. I had come to learn, in bits and pieces, that Zubiri wrote on religion, Christianity in particular but not exclusively, that he had studied oriental languages, and that he studied with De Broglie and Schrödinger as well. A science-and-religion man!
Maybe someone at this foundation would be interested in learning about our grant program? I found the address, got inside the building, went up the 5th floor, and knocked on the door.
No answer. I dropped my business card inside the door and went away.
Again, time passed. My contacts in Madrid had, as it turned out, connections with the Zubiri Foundation. In fact, one of my colleagues in Madrid had written on Zubiri. He assisted me with opening a conversation with members of the Zubiri Foundation, eventually leading to a successful application for one of our grants. In the process, I had the opportunity to make a return visit to Madrid and got to visit the Foundation. I now have a photograph of me standing next to the desk where Zubiri worked on the book Sobre la Esencia.
After about a decade, I left my job at what became the Metanexus Institute to return to teaching. I was offered the opportunity to teach a course entitled “The Human Person” at Saint Joseph’s University, a Jesuit school in Philadelphia. After a round or two of teaching this course, I insinuated into the syllabus Zubiri’s last work, Man and God (which he worked on until his death at that desk I stood next to).
In the intervening years, I had come not only to understand Zubiri and his philosophical project, but to think that he is perhaps the most profound unsung thinker of the 20th century, a philosopher whose works have much to contribute to our understanding of science, religion, and most importantly ourselves. This coming year, I will be offering a course entitled “Philosophy and Liberation,” which will explore the work of Ignacio Ellacuría, who completed Man and God from Zubiri’s notes, and Enrique Dussel, a thinker deeply influenced by Zubiri. Zubiri, as you can imagine by now, is not an “unknown” thinker at all in Spanish speaking countries, and indeed, through Ellacuría’s work and life (and martyrdom) is highly influential even in the sphere of political praxis.
This story of my growing relationship with the thought of Xavier Zubiri, lasting more than a decade, is meant to highlight one thing: the transcendent importance of used/antiquarian bookstores. Dalrymple, in the piece I cited to begin this essay, points out that the “joy of finding something that one did not know existed, and that is deeply interesting or connected in a totally unexpected way with one’s intellectual interests of the moment, is one of the great serendipitous rewards of browsing.” Literally, such serendipity has changed my life. My thinking about the history of Western philosophy, about the human condition, and about the nature of reality, has become thoroughly infused with Zubirian ideas. I not only understand his ideas better (with still much, much left to learn, I hasten to add lest I present myself as an expert!), but I understand better the philosophical problems I have always wrestled with. And all because I have a certain book-lust and serendipitously found a book that caught my eye that I never otherwise would have known existed. We will be diminished if the bookstores go the way of the dinosaurs.