WHILE I WAS visiting Fort Worth, Texas, recently, I walked into a used bookstore on North 8th Street--the kind of place where you can fall into a time warp, forgetting where you are until you hear the owner locking up for the day. For the first hour I browsed the shelves on my own, collecting a small stack of books with such delectable titles as What Every Catholic Needs to Know About Fundamentalism and Christianity as Mystical Fact. I even found a hardback copy of the complete works of Spinoza that cost $9.50, or about $1.90 a pound.
After I sneezed, the shopkeeper's voice floated across the stacks. "I forgot you were there," she said. "May I help you with anything in particular?"
"I'm interested in literature," I said. "Also religion."
"Then you're in luck," she said, appearing beside me and leading me to an alcove with two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and two library tables loaded with books. "We just bought a minister's entire collection," she said. "Help yourself." I began reading titles. After one shelf's worth I said, "This guy was an Episcopalian."
"How did you know?" the shopkeeper asked. I could not say for sure. The History of the English Church was pretty much a giveaway, along with the books on sacramental theology and liturgy. But it was also the breadth--and occasional kookiness--of the titles. This man had owned a Qur'an that was entirely in Arabic, as well as the complete works of Pope John Paul II. He also had a couple of apocalyptic novels with covers like drugstore westerns on them.
I found plenty of titles I recognized from my own shelves, such as Soul Friend, by Kenneth Leech; The Great Code, by Northrop Frye; and Evil and the God of Love, by John Hick. There were also multiple copies of several titles, including Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation and Robert Farrar Capon's trilogy, The Parables of the Kingdom, The Parables of Grace and The Parables of Judgment. As a former parish minister, I figured that this meant one of two things. Either the owner of this library had liked these books so much that he regularly gave them away as presents, or else he had offered them to a slightly under-subscribed Sunday school class and ended up with leftover books.
By the time I reached the second bookshelf, I was feeling sad. How could someone let go of an entire lifetime full of books? My own library says more about me than all my photograph albums put together. I still have A Is for Annabelle, my first picture book, which I scribbled with crayons when I was two. I also have The Collected Poems of Eugene Field, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish. One picture in that book, of a joyous naked child arching through the sky in front of a celestial city, remains my earliest image of heaven. …