Wesley Hill and Brett Foster

On Bookstores, Books, and Reading

Inspired by a visit to the new Seminary Co-op.

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From there my eye drifted to a new book by another Jewish scholar, the Harvard professor of Jewish studies Jon Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (from Princeton University Press). I ended up purchasing this book at the Co-op, and, having read it now, I can report that it lives up to Levenson's usual high standards. Much like Stephen Prothero's recent God Is Not One, Levenson's book sets out to dismantle the attractive myth that, at the root of the so-called "monotheistic faiths," there's a common bedrock of shared conviction, a kind of "neutral Abraham" that's waiting to be recovered and appealed to over against the unfortunate disagreements that later grew up among the three rival religions. On the contrary, Levenson says, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all make use of the figure of Abraham, but they understand his significance in irreducible, irreconcilable ways. Which doesn't spell the end of interfaith dialogue; on the contrary, Levenson hopes, it may reenergize it by helping its practitioners avoid facile readings of one another's sacred texts. (One of the professors I most admired in graduate school told me he'll read anything Jon Levenson writes, no matter the topic, because he knows if he's not already interested in the topic at hand, he should be, if Levenson is addressing it. That was enough of a recommendation for me to make Levenson my intellectual companion too, and I'm glad I have.)

I'll run—more quickly—through a few more titles that caught my eye on the beautifully wide table at the Co-op. David Halperin, author of the influential One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, has a provocative book out called How to Be Gay, a kind of cultural history of "camp." Given my ongoing interest in the intersection between Christian faith and theology and homosexuality, I was intrigued by this new arrival.

A very different book, by Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi's Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading, prompted a second look, not least because of its fetching cover. The book explores Gandhi's proprietorship of a small printing press during his sojourn in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century, but it appears to be, as wise books usually are, about so much more: reading practices, interreligious cooperation, ethics, and social change.

And finally, Brett, at the very end of our visit, as you and I were trying to tear ourselves away from the shelves and make it back to the car, I picked up Matthew Guerrieri's The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination. I was immediately attracted to the minimalist aesthetic of the cover, and the deckle-edge pages (there's no book whose presentation couldn't be improved by deckle-edge pages, in my humble opinion), but as I flipped through it, I found myself equally riveted by the subject matter. What an interesting idea: to enumerate the meanings hearers have assigned to the symphony's portentous opening and explore their contradictions and interconnections.

Well, this has to stop somewhere, so I'll conclude. Thanks for the chance to reminisce about the first of many visits to the new Co-op. Next time, maybe our route to Hyde Park will wend by the Wheaton Public Library?

All the best,

Dear Wes,

Thanks for your latest letter! What fun it was to read it, to hear about a few books from the Seminary Co-op that you recommend, which are now of interest to me, too, and also to ponder more of your thoughts on bookstores, book-buying and reading habits generally, and, surprisingly, libraries! Everything old is new again, I suppose, although when it comes to public libraries as wonderful places both to check out new books (in both senses) and to find decent, back-corner work space, well, as you suggest, I am hardly someone who needs convincing.

I am glad that you are thinking differently and more positively about the Co-op's new store, compared with your initial, still slightly disappointed impressions, so strongly informed as they were by your memories of the old location. Since our first exchange of letters, I have continued to think about the aspects of the new location that make it an appealing bookstore. You mentioned in your first letter those wooden shelves in the main section, whose thin arches overhead seem like a designer's subtle nod to the tunnel-like experience of the prior space. And how about that improbably bright carpeting for such a "serious" store, with its rainbow colors and De Stijl geometric patterns? I even felt a soft spot for the four sections of "Marxist Studies" books—not shelves, mind you, but four full bookcases! Similarly, you mentioned the color-coordinated rows of Loeb titles, and I would match your impression with mine, at seeing shelved in one place so many light-blue-colored volumes in the I Tatti library, a series of Neo-Latin Italian Renaissance works, meant to complement the Loeb classics, really. I love savoring such details in any individual shop, but such a plentitude of Marxist or I Tatti titles is likely to be found, these days at least, only at Seminary Co-op.

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