In honor of Gerald J. Russello.

By John Emmet Clarke.

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Christmas, The University Bookman presents to you the keynote address delivered by John Emmet Clarke on November 14, 2022, at an event in honor of former Bookman editor Gerald Russello at Regis High School in New York City. 

Thank you, David, for those kind words of introduction. Thank you to the good people of the Russell Kirk Center, for the gracious invitation to speak this evening on a topic very near and dear to my heart and to honor, in doing so, a truly great man. A truly great man: Gerald Russello. 

As you already know from David’s remarks, I am a publisher by trade. Since 2015, I have stewarded Cluny’s catalog of classic books as its editor-in-chief. That catalog currently holds more than three hundred books, a great many of them the work of luminaries of the recent Catholic past: Jacques Maritain and François Mauriac; Georges Bernanos and Sigrid Undset; Josef Pieper and Pope St. John Paul II. But long before three hundred books, long before Maritain and Pieper, before Rumer Godden, Ronald Knox, and Romano Guardini—there was Gerald and his gracious request that Cluny consider publishing a new edition of Orestes Brownson’s novel The Spirit-Rapper, to which he would add an introductory essay. We quickly accepted the request, of course, and published, the following year, Brownson’s fascinating tale of spiritual warfare under the new title of Like a Roaring Lion. Gerald then continued his generous involvement with Cluny by accepting a place on our advisory board. 

In his tribute to Gerald in The University Bookman last year, David wrote: “Humility is the foundation of Christian charity. It is little wonder, then, why Gerald was so generous in sharing his time and talents with others.… In true Gerald fashion, this charity was behind the scenes. In more recent years, he quietly lent his enthusiasm and expertise to fledgling Catholic organizations as a board member and advisor.”

As he always does, David wrote truly. I am the recipient of Gerald’s personal and professional generosity. Although we only ever met the one time, he supported me in my work as an editor, as a writer, and as a thinker. He supported Cluny’s work as a publisher and steward for the riches of the tradition—and he did so from the very beginning, when Cluny was the most fledgling of fledgling organizations. Gerald lent us the aid of his expertise with generosity, good will, and—above all—conviction and confidence that our mission, Cluny’s mission, was worthwhile and necessary. 

A passage of Gerald’s essay introducing Christopher Dawson’s Christianity and European Culture brings into sharp focus the grounds for that conviction and confidence. “Dawson proposed to meet the challenges he saw for Christianity in the modern world by engaging in a deep study of the Christian past,” Gerald wrote. “This course of study, however, was not intended to recall a way of life that, however admirable, has disappeared. Rather, Dawson sought to refresh the theological and historical resources of Christian belief in order to build the foundations of a new Christian culture.”

Gerald saw in Cluny the promise of something that could assist in that work of building “the foundations of a new Christian culture.” Without his example and his assistance, I doubt that we would have made good on that promise and still be doing what we are today, that work of which there is no apparent end: the making of many books. 

“Looking backward will perhaps help us move forward,” Gerald once wrote. That is what I propose to do tonight. I would like to speak with you about this matter of books—specifically old books. This past May, in an article in The Catholic Thing, I wrote that “books, ‘old’ books especially, enable our participation in the tradition.… By active engagement in our reading, by meeting the past head-on and actually working to integrate it into the present, we keep the tradition alive.”

Now, there are two fundamental aspects of reading: the what and the how. Tonight I would like to address both aspects, beginning with the what—and that for two reasons. Partly because it does not matter much how you read if you have nothing to read; partly because my answer to the what puts us in a bit of pickle. My answer to the what is old books.” And why? Old books help us to participate in the tradition and participating in the tradition is good. 

Here is the pickle. This statement is true, but not necessarily helpful. Why not helpful? Because this line of thinking allows us to easily slip into a kind of utilitarian approach to our books, especially our old books—but not just our old books, but our past in general: music, movies, sports, liturgy, and so forth. For conservatives, this trap looms especially largely. Why is that? An integral part of the conservative ethos, as none other than Russell Kirk points out in The Conservative Mind, is the instinct of “preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity.” 

Preserving these traditions can yield abundant fruit. One fruit in particular which receives a great deal of attention is the fruit of civilization, the creation of a properly human culture. The ancient moral traditions are the bedrock of any civilization worthy of its charge, the incorporation of any culture that is human and humane. So, then, the enduring value of old books is their power to bring us into this grand project of developing civilization. 

True, but only in part. Beware the trap of utility. It is at our feet at this very moment. We will fall into this trap if we make the primary purpose of old books the achievement of this grand project. If we subordinate reading to world-building. If we underline the goodness of literacy with the social utility of the Classics. Even if we do so in good faith. Because this is not the point. This is not their point.

At my alma mater, Providence College, I took every chance I could to replace electives from my own major (philosophy) with electives in the English Department—just so I could be under the wonderful and wise tutelage of a professor named Brian Barbour. I recently read an essay of Brian’s from 1999. (This essay will appear, by the way, in a book forthcoming next fall from Cluny, Reaching into the Silence.) Brian’s essay is on C. S. Lewis and Cambridge. Evidently, in Lewis’s time, Cambridge and Oxford had disparate positions on “old books” and how to read them. I would like to read to you a few lines from this essay, because I think they clarify nicely how easily we are led into making the old books useful

The Oxford syllabus dealt with what Lewis called “old books,” and he recognized that it was all too easy to approach these as though they were current books and thus disastrously misread them.… Lewis disliked intensely what he called chronological snobbery—’the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited…’

Lewis disliked treating the old as new—fair enough. But should we? What happens when we are not deferential to the age of the book? For one, we subjugate them to the petty task of problem-solving.

Lewis held an impersonal theory of poetry: poetry was essentially ‘making’ and not essentially ‘expressing.’ … This impersonal, objective approach served him as a safeguard against reading old books as though they were new. While ‘practical criticism’ also insisted on the reader’s response to ‘the words on the page,’ Cambridge tended to read old books primarily for the light they threw on modern problems.… 

In other words, Oxford read books for their inherent worth; Cambridge read them for their current social utility. How does that difference matter today? We can easily make the argument for the Cambridge approach. It is a perfectly functional approach; it even yields decent results at times—which would explain why even places like my alma mater and Villanova, like Columbia and Fordham, maintain some semblance of a Liberal Arts Program or Liberal Arts core. Of course, there are the purely pragmatic interests of these programs: reading old books makes you a more successful worker. Here is Fordham’s rationale: “You can lead in business if you know how to think critically, frame questions, and see alternative perspectives. This is what the…liberal arts core teaches you.” In other words, just read some Aristotle and Machiavelli, some Shakespeare and Tolstoy, and—bang—you are a partner in the firm. 

But we need not limit the Cambridge-current-utility approach to this kind of crass pragmatism. It is also at work in the more elevated, practical humanism approach to problem-and-solution. For example, here is a problem: our civilization is in disarray. Solution: Old books can help us set it to rights—read Plato’s Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia. Problem: Our schools reject the liberal arts in unabashed favor of the technological. Solution: Old books can restore our educational system—read Newman’s Idea of a University and Lewis’s Abolition of Man. Problem: Our sense for the intelligibility and order of the cosmos and our place therein is exhausted. Solution: Old books can fill up what is lacking there—read Dante’s Divine Comedy and Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

Make no mistake: these books are Great Books with initial caps; their arguments have enduring merit and their wisdom is timeless. They can help us to achieve those ends I just listed—but the achievement of those ends is not guaranteed. (The output of those programs I just mentioned are walking proof of that.) More fundamentally, the achievement of those ends is not actually the purpose of the old books. Civilization, the liberal arts, personal holiness, love of wisdom—these are fruits of preserving the tradition of reading old books—but they are not first-fruits. The first fruit of old books is the primary education of each of us, of you and me, of the individual, in the mystery of the human experience. Plain and simple. One need not read old books to be a good person or a happy person or a successful or a wise person. And the reading of old books, by itself, will not make you good or happy or successful or wise. But it can expand your reach towards those goods and it will expand your reach toward a life of meaning and worth. And our reach does not exceed our grasp.

One of the Founding Fathers of our nation, John Adams, was born almost three hundred years ago into a farming family in Braintree, Massachusetts. Adams was a man of philosophical and political genius. He was also, by all accounts, a good man, a man committed to the life of the mind, to expanding his humanity. Before he was a genius, before he was a Founding father, before he was even a dad, he wrote: “I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading?” He wrote this in his diary at the age of twenty-five. Five years later, in 1765, at the age of thirty, he wrote the following:

Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.… Let us read and recollect and impress upon our souls, the views and ends, of our own more immediate forefathers… Recollect the civil and religious principles and hopes and expectations, which constantly supported and carried them through all hardships…

The dissertation from which these lines are taken begins with the arresting statement: “We have been afraid to think.” I will take Adams’ word for it that this was the case in his age; it is the case in our age as well; it has likely been the case in every age. “There is nothing new under the sun…” Today, we must ask ourselves: Are we are afraid of more? Are we afraid to read? Are we afraid to remember?

It is good to read and good to remember: these are basic tenets of existence. If anyone rejects those tenets, we are all worse off; his memory loss becomes our memory loss. To paraphrase the great Fr. James V. Schall: When one of us forgets what man is, the Church becomes his memory. Christ reveals man fully to himself; the Church is the mystical Body of Christ. The Church reminds us who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. Thus she serves as “a guarantee” of culture, mediating what Pope Benedict XVI described as the “encounter between divine revelation and human existence” from which culture originates. 

In fulfilling this role of “memory bank,” the Church is elevating a purely natural phenomenon to a supernatural level. What do I mean? In the natural order, our families give us our identity and our direction, while also making us conscious of our roots and our dependencies, of the fact that “we did not make ourselves.” So we can exclude the Church from our analysis (although I would advise against it); we cannot escape our need for a memory-saving function.

But the question is worth asking: Is this culture-creating, memory-saving activity necessarily a welcome one? Do we actually want to cling to the past? Or to phrase it differently, are the merits of a tradition worth all the fuss and bother? Unsurprisingly, my answers to those questions are both yes. Yes, we do want to cling to the past; yes, the merits of a tradition are worth all the fuss and bother. For anyone not convinced, just look at the data—follow the science, if you will. Damn-the-torpedoes progressivism and full-speed-ahead consumerism got married and their household is in chaos. Even those who reject that diagnosis accept the reality of the symptoms and the sobering nature of the prognosis. The West—the world—is in chaos. A little bit of chaos can be a good thing. A world of it? Not so much. 

The state of the family is evidence of this. And our reading of the family can follow the same pattern as our reading of old books. We can focus on the family as a good means to a greater end. The family is the basic building block of society; as the family goes, so goes everything else. As any parent in the room knows full well, we are living in a society which aggressively facilitates what Pope St. John Paul II called the “disturbing degradation of fundamental values” and “corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom.” Together, these combine to undermine the stability and integrity of the family. 

A rejection of the “traditional” family model has undermined the stability and integrity of the culture. Repair of the society is beyond the grasp of any one person; but the repair of the family is within the grasp of each of us who is part of one. Your good family might help renew society, just as your reading of old books might help civilize society—but only if you exclude that consideration and focus on the task at hand. If I determine to have a good family for the sake of having a good society, my family will take shape accordingly: distracted, suborned, insufficient unto itself. But if I seek first the putting of my own house in order and the enlargement of my own mind and expansion of my own heart, then all these other things shall be granted unto me. 

I said you could exclude the Church from our consideration, and you can; but I will not. I would like to go back to Fr. Schall’s point about the Church and memory. A primary instrument of the Church’s memory-restorative power is the tradition; the primary wielder of that instrument is the People of God. To say the Church remembers is meaningful only because we ourselves remember. The bankruptcy of typical diocesan and parish initiatives to offer a more faithful Christian witness to the culture is not simply indicative of the failure of ecclesial administration. It also points to the way that the many individuals who fail to read and remember—to take the great tradition seriously—results in collective failure. Individual failure begets collective failure.

Thus our tenuous grasp on tradition. As T. S. Eliot stressed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the two strands of the tradition have grown weak—the historical sense and the sense of the presence of the past. Without them, our grasp on the tradition loosens; we lose our “sense of the timeless.” 

Tradition…involves, in the first place, the historical sense…and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.

It is what makes the reader traditional as well. The weakness of our “historical sense” has induced an obvious cultural malaise: our thought, our play, our worship, are lifeless. In a healthy culture, those activities are central and robust. And for that to be the case, we need the tradition, especially literature. Literature contains the record of how culture has been made and un-made and also serves as the rulebook for how culture can and ought to be made.

If this twofold sense of tradition is so important, then how do we strengthen our hold on it? How do we participate in the tradition with full-hearted enthusiasm and unblinking devotion? By taking part in the ritual; by practicing, quite literally, what we preach; by taking to heart the words that St. Augustine heard on the threshold of his conversion: “Take and read.” Books, “old” books especially, enable our participation in the tradition. Tradition, because it requires agency, as Josef Pieper wrote, is something alive. By active engagement in our reading, by meeting the past head-on and actually working to integrate it into the present, we keep the tradition alive.

I call this literary engagement with the past a ritual on purpose. “A rite is not simply one type of action among many others,” explained the French theologian (and Cluny author) Louis Bouyer; “rites are of themselves meaningful actions.” Consider how confidently we set ourselves to teaching children how to read; to encouraging our friends and family to read more; to promising ourselves that we will read more—reading apparently bears its significance within itself. And the age of a ritual increases its significance; the longer people have been practicing a particular rite, the richer its history; elements of rituals—a cross, a flag, a song, a baseball bat, a book—the older they are, the greater their significance. 

Natural, simply human rituals are that way. Baseball is that way. Supernatural, divinely instituted rituals are that way. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is that way. I say that reading is that way as well; in fact, given that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, that the grand narrative of Divine Providence is held in the Book of Life, I say that reading transcends the simply human and comes closer to the divinely instituted than we would commonly think. 

Now that we are reading old books, how shall we read them? When we read, we should not read as the pagans do—who think they are well-read because of the many words they consume and regurgitate. Rather, when we (when you) read, do so with two rules in mind.

Rule Number One: Read as if you must say nothing to no one about what you have read. Contend with the book as an individual. Our digitally oriented, hyper-communicative society presents a nearly irresistible temptation to talk instead of think. Talking about a book without first thinking it through is an intellectually barren exercise. Think about the book as if you are the last person who will read it and the only sure way to guarantee its survival is to become the book. Better yet, to borrow Bradbury’s brilliant description in Fahrenheit 451 of the last readers, become a “dust jacket” for the book. In Bradbury’s own words: 

Bums on the road, libraries inside.… The most important single thing we had to pound into ourselves is that we were not important, we mustn’t be pedants; we were not to feel superior to anyone else in the world. We’re nothing more than dust jackets for books… And when the war’s over, someday, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing over again. But that’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing.

We are dust unto dust and yet we can carry literary treasure. Carry it with a dignified silence until its riches have taken root within you. Read as if you must say nothing to no one about what you have read. 

Rule Number Two: Read with no care for the relevance of what you read. Yet another symptom of social-media-syndrome is fixation on what is topical. Whether you read Dante’s Inferno, Lewis’s Abolition of Man, or Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, ignore the demand for attention to a particular theme, passage, or reference because of its applicability to x, y, or z iteration of The Current Thing. Witness the tragedy of Paolo and Francesca in The Inferno to absorb the lesson that unbridled passion tends toward destruction; reflect upon Lewis’s diagnosis of men without chests in Abolition of Man to commit more fervently to the cultivation of “virtue and enterprise” in yourself and your family; grapple with the tragedy of Sonya in Crime and Punishment to appreciate the sheer complexity of the human heart. Indeed there will be time to underscore the relevance of those texts and their lessons—but make that time some other time.

Reading in this way might seem detached from the life of faith and a far cry from engagement with the tradition. Yet to read in this way is to practice the ritual of reading in its simplest form. And that practice has the power to cultivate the basic affection for reading, for memory, an affection essential for the health and development of the more complex and robust further growth of our loves. Gerald himself, in a piece written for Crisis Magazine before I was even born, described this beautifully: “Each of us has a shelf…in our libraries, where we place those books that, to us, are more than books. Each is a reflection of ourselves, even as our friends are, in some fashion, a reflection. Taken together, these books provide an image of the most complex tome of all: our soul.”

The “sincere love of books” is a “power of faith”—so said Chesterton. Only those who “see with the eyes of faith ponder the root of all things and the ultimate meaning of existence”—so said Josef Pieper. And “there is no frigate like a book to take us lands away”—so said Emily Dickinson. In other words, books are a way out; they are “portals,” the opening “through which” meaning enters into view. But books, like portals, or doors, or windows, are also a way in to something, to somewhere. Roald Dahl describes how his character Matilda enjoyed this experience:

The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway. She went to India with Rudyard Kipling. She traveled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.

Once we see books primarily in this transportive way, it should be immediately obvious why we so naturally gravitate toward the ritual of reading and how that ritual is made so wonderfully rich by the use of old books. These old books not only sharpen our minds; they put wind in our sails; they lend dexterity to our hands as we polish the windows through which we can see vistas and viewpoints previously unknown, unchallenged, unimaginable; and they quicken our steps as we go out the door and step onto the road. 

Bilbo Baggins would remind his nephew that “there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.’” We could say the same of reading of old books. It’s a dangerous business; it will sweep us off we know not where exactly, except that it will be in the past. And that is good. As we read these old books, we become—to borrow once again from Eliot—“conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.” And once aware of what is living, how can we ever be content with what is dead? 

Old books await. Let us make haste to read them. Thank you.

John Emmet Clarke is editor-in-chief of Cluny, a publishing house devoted to recovering neglected texts in the Catholic and Western traditions. Subscribe to his newsletter, Lord of Indiscipline.

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