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Gerry Turcotte: Books mark the many pages of our lives

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  • March 5, 2019

I was recently tagged on a Twitter post in what has been called the Book Challenge. If invited, the recipient is asked to post a cover of an all-time favourite book, with no explanation or description of the choice. Just seven covers over seven days, and with each post the recipient is asked to nominate someone new to take up the challenge — a chain letter, of sorts, for the 21st century. 

My first thought was that, as an inexpert social media user, this was a bridge too far. I had neither the time nor the ability to sustain this over seven days. My second thought was that it would be impossible for a literary scholar to avoid editorializing. 

In the way that perhaps only an academic can overthink things, I also began to agonize over what I wanted to “say” through these posts. Let’s be honest. There’s an opportunity to “construct” our identity through a strategic selection of texts. 

My first inclination could have been to construct a series of works making my sophisticated understanding of physics and the natural world clear to all. Perhaps A Brief History of Time, followed by a post on string theory and quantum mechanics. On the other hand, as president of a Catholic university, I could send a message about my training and lineage: the papal encyclicals, Summa theologiae (Latin and English of course), Apologia Pro Vita Sua by John Henry Newman.

There was also an opportunity to show my quirky side. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which everyone in my freshman year was reading; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or a Dr. Who compendium. One of the recipients that I tagged selected The History of the Donut as one of his choices and I felt instantly regretful that I hadn’t got there first. 

There was also an opportunity to show my ferocious executive side: The Art of War, Bold Leadership for Organisational Acceleration, or Thinking Fast and Slow. A combination of the two might be The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, but I didn’t want to give my team any ideas.

After this initial review, I confronted a bigger issue. Over the last few months I have been seriously thinking about disposing of my library. This is a big deal. I am a true bibliophile. I have collected books since my childhood with the passion and drive of an addict. 

In my early 20s I had already collected an almost complete set of first edition William Faulkners, often foregoing food money to make sure I could buy a valued tome. Later in life, especially when I ran a major writing program in Australia, I had the good fortune of having signed first editions given to me by many of the world’s most incredible authors: from Gallant to Ondaatje, Carey to Drabble, Rushdie to Coetzee.

All of these books have accumulated, together with a library of critical texts on everything from the Bible to literary theory to the Gothic and Indigenous literatures. Suddenly I found myself in a book-lined room and as I worked my way through decades of texts I experienced angst, nostalgia and, at times, elation. 

The angst, I think understandably, comes from knowing that these will need to be passed on; that I’ve moved to a stage of my life where I am no longer turning to these works regularly. It is a change-of-life moment. 

Nostalgia, too, is easily explained. Remembering the hurried walk across a frozen city to collect a first edition copy of a book I’d been chasing for over half a year: Absalom, Absalom. Or having Morris West sign a copy of The Shoes of the Fisherman and place it in my grateful hand. Driving Margaret Atwood back to her accommodation after her successful talk on The Handmaid’s Tale, scarcely understanding how big that book would become. 

Other parts of the library also speak to the journey of faith and understanding that we perhaps all traverse. Multiple editions of the Bible, including beautiful kids’ sets I collected for my children. But classics too: The Lives of the Saints, the works of Thomas Merton, Jean Vanier, Charles Taylor and many others. Rows of books on social justice and Indigenous issues. And of course novels by the truckload, from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, or classics from my field of Gothic literature.

In the end, I came away with a sense of elation. The library is a map of where you’ve been and where you want to go. The dedication in books, or the notes from friends who have given you a work they loved, remind you that books are living beings. They bring the hopes and thoughts of one person to another, but they also enter into a chain of conversations that carry the books well above their own identity. 

A book on faith can represent a statement on conversion or an answer to a life-defining question. But in the end, it is a record of where we’ve been, who we are and certainly who we may want to become. 

Hard to convey all that through seven covers without comment or opinion.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)


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Support The Catholic Register

Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.