I do not wish to make too much out of the importance of books, but nor do I wish to make too little of them either.
We all know how easy and common it is to elevate something to a place of such significance that the brouhaha turns out to be nothing more than a masquerade for idolatry or self-righteousness. Here's a rather bald-faced example:
"Books are important. I have a lot of books. Therefore I am important."
This elite syllogism can be false on a hundred different levels. First, the books I have may all have been written by communists making me only important to communists. Second, I may be the kind of bloke who buys a lot of books but never actually reads them making me only important to book retailers and to those who are willing to wrongly conclude that a man well-supplied with books is also well-read. Third, I may have a lot of books and have read all of them but now regret it because my wife and children abandoned me after I refused to come out of my study now making me less important to the most important people in my life.
It is easy to see through elitist syllogisms like the one above - at least when we are not taking ourselves so seriously.
What is not so easy, however, is seeing through something to see something else, something better.
In a rebuke to cynics everywhere, C.S. Lewis said: “You can’t go on 'seeing through' things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. To 'see through' all things is the same as not to see” (The Abolition of Man).
This brings me back to the importance of books. Because we can see that books are not so important we are well-guarded from thinking one must be both literate and regularly visiting libraries in order complete the Atonement. "Foolishness!" we would say, and rightfully so. But can we see this: that books are sufficiently important that without the right ones being written and published and read the darkness of ignorance falls upon a home, a people, a nation?
I hope we see through the former error only to see the latter truth: books are important because ignorance is dangerous.
Case in point: this week while I was reading footnote 94 in Anthony Lane's "Introduction" to Calvin's, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (1543). There, in a footnote of all places, I discovered that from the tenth century until 1538 the canons (ecclesiastical laws established by a church council) of the Council of Orange (529 AD) were unknown and unquoted in theological discourse and debate.
The import of this was that those canons condemned Semi-Pelagianism (the error that teaches man cooperates with God in man's salvation not by keeping the law but by making a free-will choice for Christ) and thus theological discourse in the medieval era was not informed nor constrained by these important canons.
In footnote 94 Lane explains how this happened: "The medievals [medieval Catholic theologians] relied on compilations for their knowledge of the councils; these compilations, including the most influential, the ninth century Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, did not include Orange."
This means that for over 500 years the Church did not wrestle with canons like this one from Orange: "If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit,...." (Canon 8; see all here).
Was the negative impact of these unpublished canons merely theoretical or real? Lane points out that two prominent Catholic theologians of the era - Desiderius Erasmus and Albert Pighius - spilled much ink arguing against the bondage of the human will while exalting free-choice in matters of salvation. Erasmus argued against Luther and Pighius argued against Calvin. Their rhetoric, however, would later be considered outside the bounds of even Catholic orthodoxy.
How did it come to be known later that Erasmus and Pighius were going "beyond the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy in their exaltation of free choice" (quoting Lane)? A book was published.
In 1538 Peter Crabbe published a new compilation of the great councils and their canons, Concilia omnia (Cologne:P. Quentel, 1538). It included all the canons of the Council of Orange and eventually these would trickle into the flow of theological discourse. By the way, you can purchase your copy of Crabbe's book for $2,200 on the Internet.
The point of all of this is that books are important. There are books we have that are important and there are books we don't yet have that are important. There are books we have read that are important and there are books we have not yet read that are important.
Now, of course, there are a lot of books that are not important at all. It is easy to see that. What I wish to see is that there are many books that are important and not just for theologians and pastors. We all need books lest the thick fog of ignorance in a host of "fields of human knowledge" settles upon us. Let us not be merely a generation well-entertained but a generation well-read. If we think it important for our children, why not for ourselves?
In closing, let me drag Calvin into this. In his big book, the Institutes, he goes so far as to say that neglecting what God provides through the common grace of human knowledge (in books perhaps) is to dishonor the Spirit of God. Here is Calvin from the Institutes, II.2.15:
Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we condemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how pre-eminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God?.... Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.