Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gifted Books and Handwritten Notes

The first book that I received as a gift that is still in my library is a little deutsche Fibel (dated 1901), whose purpose was—and potentially still is—to teach young children how to write the old German alphabet in neat, cursive script. On the inside front cover are words that were beautifully handwritten by someone who had learned that Fibel well: “To Matthew and Michael, from your Grandfather Emil, December 1967.” I was five years old then; my brother, four. We had been sitting on our grandfather’s lap, messing with the items on his large desk in the upstairs room of his house that served as his study. I remember having earlier touched the books that lined the fifteen feet of bookshelves (floor to ceiling) behind his desk and pondered what they all meant. Many of them were in a language different from the one I was learning. So he probably said something like, “If you want to be able to read these, you’ll need to start with this. . .” At the time, I suspect my brother was just as little excited as I was to have received that little book. Our hearts and minds were oriented in a different direction. Christmas was just a few weeks away. Getting a book at that time was a bit like getting a pair of socks or school supplies or some underwear. There might have been practical value in a gift like that, but would it bring any lasting joy and happiness (like a model airplane or an air hockey game would)?

Today, that little Fibel is among my most treasured possessions. It has brought lasting joy to me, for the simple fact that it connects me to my Grandfather, to the space and time of the day he signed the book, to the words I saw him actually write that day, to those other books on those bookshelves, books that I later (after his death) would receive as well. I don’t know how many hours, before that second gifting, that I had spent browsing my Grandfather’s library. At first, anything above the fourth shelf was beyond my reach. Eventually, access to the top was gained by means of a stool. Today, whenever I think of Thanksgivings or Easters or Christmases celebrated in my Grandparents’ house in Salem, Ore., my memories always turn to those quiet, solitary times with those old books in that upstairs study. (As much as I enjoyed being with my aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives, on those occasions, I also looked forward to some time alone for bookish pursuits.) 

More valuable and meaningful to me are not so much those books themselves, but the handwritten notations that fill many of their pages. For example, there are the marginalia in Pieper’s christliche Dogmatik, entered into the book when my Grandfather sat in the author’s classes at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, between 1919 and 1924. Walther’s Pastorale also contains such notes and glosses from the time he studied pastoral theology there (probably with Prof. Fritz). That is also true for the many booklets of sermons that he worked through in preparation for his frequent preaching. 

I have benefited from the marginalia and handwritten notations in other books given to me over the years. After the death of my Uncle Bob, who, like my Grandfather, had been an LCMS pastor, some of his library came my way, due to the generosity of my Aunt: “You’ll be able to use these more than any of my kids, so take what you want. . .” I was surprised by how well my Uncle wrote cursive, as well as his father. I concluded that something got lost between their genes and mine, given how poor my own handwriting was--and is (it's worse today, I hate to admit). 

While still in college I went to hear a lecture by the Oregon author, Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Sometimes a Great Notion, etc.). I was then working on a paper about Paul Tillich’s theology and so I checked out the school’s copy of The Courage to Be and took it with me to read during the minutes before the lecture’s start. Since I got to the site early, though, I happened to notice Mr. Kesey standing off alone to the side of the hall. My friend Dick Hill (who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Kesey, at Emery) and I were the only other ones there, so I got up and went over to see if I could talk with the famous author. We chatted for about 10 minutes. At one point he asked me what I was reading. So I showed him. Totally off-the-cuff and spur-of-the-moment, I asked him if he would sign it. “To whom should I make it out?,” he asked. “Well, it belongs to Concordia College’s library, so maybe you should make your inscription to it.” So he hand wrote: “To Concordia College Library, Struggle with the human situation. Mournfully yours, Ken Kesey.” I kept that book, having paid for a new copy to be purchased by Mrs. Dobberful, our librarian (who was also a shirt-tail relative of my grandfather). She chuckled when I showed her Kesey’s not-so-neatly-written inscription. It was clear to me that he had studied Tillich carefully and came up with the right thing to put down as an inscription to a library. (Dick told me later that Kesey attended a Christian church in Eugene with his wife, who also taught Sunday School there.) Unfortunately, somewhere in my moves across the country and to Europe, I lost that Kesey-inscribed Tillich volume. If anyone knows where it is or who has it, I would gladly like to receive it back. 

My library is more than books. For me the inscriptions, notes, and handwritten marginalia are equally important, maybe more important, in the case of some books. I have been the beneficiary of books by and from my teacher and friend, Martin Marty (whose inscribed books are also very meaningful to me). There are the notes by another Lutheran theologian, Walter Bouman, whose library came to VU a few years ago and whose son, Luke, gave me permission “to take what the library doesn’t want or need.” Notes and marginalia by Art Simon, co-founder of Bread for the World and long-time family friend, fill many of the hundreds of volumes that he kindly gave me a few years ago. Books from my predecessor, David Truemper, especially his copies of Elert's writings, also contain valuable handwritten notations. The same is true for other Elert volumes that I received from Ed Schroeder's library (purchased, actually, from the now defunct "Ex Libris" bookstore in Hyde Park, near the U. of C.).
While time is indeed running out, I haven't quite yet reached the point where I have given up the idea that I might actually read all these volumes. I've skimmed them all, read all of a great deal of them, have at least read out of the rest, but I haven't read any of them to the point of being able to put down written notes in the margins, as one finds in my Grandfather's hand and the hands of the others. For one thing, my handwriting is just too poor, my letters too large, my cursive too opaque, almost "medical."

And now, two weeks ago, Bob Bertram’s theological library has also come my way, a gift to me (initially) and to Valparaiso University (eventually) by his widow, Thelda, and those who have cared for the books in St. Louis over the past decade.

What is striking about Bob’s library is how many volumes also contain his handwritten comments. Some of the notes are so extensive that they really form a second book inside the original one. For example, to read Bob’s copy of Ronald Thiemann’s book, Revelation and Theology, is to read Bob reading Thiemann (the latter had been the former's student in seminary). Some of the pages have more words in Bob's neatly inked red than the typescript on the pages themselves! Looking at these volumes is similar to looking at a medieval text, full of scholia and glosses.

I just happened now to turn to pp. 14-15 (in T’s chapter on “The Modern Doctrine of Revelation”), where T. writes, “The shift in the logical status of background beliefs, and particularly the belief in God’s prevenience, has enormous consequences for modern doctrines of revelation.” Bob’s handwritten marginal note here: “RFT seems to assume that God would need to be ‘gracious’ in order to be ‘prevenient.’ No grace, no provenience. But for many a modern skeptic it is precisely the conviction that God is prevenient which makes it impossible to believe that God is ‘gracious.’”

Or p. 160, where T. writes, “Thus the term ‘hidden God’ can sometimes mean the God clothed in his promises and revealed to faith.” Bob’s handwritten note: “’clothed in his promises’? I doubt that. Just a few lines earlier, bottom of the preceding page, RFT had quoted ML as identifying the clothing or hiddenness with ‘the humility and shame of the cross.’ That’s more like it, more like ML. The ‘promises,’ as RFT calls them, are not the hiddenness; the cross is! What is revealed is that this God-hiding cross is the cross of God!

Or on the same page, a few lines below, where T. writes, “Luther is consistent, however, in his equation of revelation and gospel.” Bob’s note here: “Wrong! As just one contrary instance (I’m sure examples could be multiplied), consider: ‘. . . the Law of God, when first revealed to them also compelled them to seek grace’ (LW 27:277). What incriminates RFT’s Barthianizing citing of ML even more, right in this very quotation he takes from LW 26:64, 72, is that he omits to explain that ML’s precise point in these passages is to emphasize how different is the revelation of the ‘Son’ from the teaching of Law!”

On p. vii, Bob has written (in response to the title of T’s chapter seven, “Promise and Prevenience: Revelation as the Doctrine of God’s Identifiability”): “I would have thought that revelation is rather what enables us to see how God identifies us. That is the only way we know God, how he regards us—and that, how he regards us, he wishes us to know only through the Law and the Promise.”

Bob’s library contains hundreds of other notated books and "marginated" materials. One of the gems is his large, black notebook that contains the Greek NT (with large margins) and his handwritten notes on many of the church’s pericopes. There is probably a doctoral dissertation to be written on just that one piece in the collection. Perhaps in a few weeks or so, I’ll try to post some of these Bertramian exegetical comments.

The books in Bob’s library will eventually be identified as having come from him. Together they will form “the Robert W. Bertram Collection” at Valparaiso University. That collection is more than a library, given the multitude of the neatly scripted marginalia. Bob, too, must have studied a Fibel!
(Aside: A few weeks ago I needed to consult vol. 21 of the American Edition of Luther's Works, edited and translated by Jaroslav Pelikan, for an essay I've been writing on Bonhoeffer's relationship to Luther's commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. I happened to grab the volume that came from "the personal library of O. P. Kretzmann," gifted to Valpo upon O. P.'s death. Inside on the front cover are the neatly handwritten words, "To O. P. Kretzmann, on the 15th anniversary of our meeting. December 7, 1956. Jaroslav Pelikan." That means the two of them met on that date in 1941. Dec 7, 1941. I learned later that O. P. had visited the junior college in Fort Wayne on that momentous date to attend a concert [Handel's Messiah]. Pelikan was then a student there. The next day, when President Kretzmann addressed the Valpo student body, he made allusions to that concert. His copy of Pelikan's translation of Luther's sermons on the Sermon on the Mount also contains copious notes and neat underlining. It is clear to me that these notes and underlines did not come from a student--they are too neat and tidy and erudite. By examining them, one gets a good sense for what Kretzmann thought was important in those sermons.)

I wonder, given that contemporary “e-readers” do allow people to type their own notes into their electronic devices, will such notes, if they are written by a scholar of the caliber of a Bertram or a Bouman or a Kretzmann, be available to others a century from now? And how many readers today would ever type into their little machines the amount of notes that Bertram hand wrote in the books of his library? Given the poor state of penmanship among students (and many faculty) today, maybe it is a good thing that people can type their comments into their ebooks and not hand write them, but will any contemporary scholar type in his or her books as much as what Bob wrote in the books he owned? I have my doubts.

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