Thursday, November 3, 2011


"The report of my death was an exaggeration" -- Mark Twain

It's not often that rare book curators in an academic library receive phone calls from students' parents, but last week a surprised Curatrix found herself the recipient of warm telephonic thanks from the mother of a CUA student. What had Curatrix done to warrant this long-distance gratitude? Save a kid's life? Return a lost cell phone? Offer a particularly riveting classroom session? Alas, she can claim no such heroics; she had merely hosted a sale of used books.

In an age when books are about as welcome as space junk hurtling towards earth, a book sale might seem a foolhardy enterprise, the resulting parental gratitude out of step with the times. Few libraries continue this long-standing method of income generation. After all, it's so much work. But this labor may, it seems, have some benefits beyond revenue. During its 24 hour sale, this tiny department received over 300 visitors, the majority of whom were students, and a large percentage of these undergraduates. They came with all sorts of interests - architecture, political science, John Henry Newman, Italian poetry, Slavic literature, children's books. Many had only a couple dollars to invest carefully in bibliographical treasures. Some were repeat customers - kids we've watched grow over the four years we've been holding the sale. But all had one thing in common - evident enthusiasm for reading and for books.

By coincidence, this event took place during the very same week as a nationally televised pronouncement by columnist Evan Thomas that American undergrads spend their four years in college stacking beer cans. Nobody argued with Mr. Thomas; it's easy to be cynical about the state of higher education in this country when statistics show that many students emerge from college virtually unchanged. The recently-published study, Academically adrift, demonstrated that student apathy and lack of rigor characterize a cross-section of American academe.

Yet we all know that there are, there must be, exceptions to the dismal statistics. And to us it seems remotely possible that some of those exceptions showed up last weekend with crumpled dollar bills to buy our old books. To us those kids seemed precisely the exceptions we all wish for in our classes - students who are informed, engaged, thoughtful, and possessed of a sense of humor. But we wondered, what could possibly account for such anomalies? It certainly couldn't be the books....

Happy All Souls Week.