People of the Books

The fall term in Annapolis has arrived so quickly summer hasn’t yet had a chance to pack up. Berobed tutors and students processed from McDowell Hall to the Francis Scott Key Auditorium in the sticky heat of a blazing sun. By the time they exited for some refreshments on the back lawn, a thunderstorm had rolled through, leaving the drenched grass steaming from the resurgent sunbeams.

In between, these same tutors and students, as well as the staff and family members who attended Wednesday’s Convocation, basked in the heavily Freon-ic atmosphere of the auditorium and listened to President Kanelos’ opening address on books. Lower-case “b” books: less the Texts in terms of ideas, and more the textblock itself, the pages, the binding, the boards.

“I would like to think together with you all about the ways in which books, that is the material objects themselves, exert upon us a humane influence,” President Kanelos began, before going on to discuss the bibliophilic nature of many a Johnnie: “our shelves sag; our nightstands are cluttered; our attics and basements teeter with boxes that we move from home to home.”

He discussed the wonderful peculiarity of our community to crave these bulkish, blocky bricks while the rest of the world hastens ever more closely toward digitized everything. A well-known marketing poster for the school shows three stacks of well-worn copies of all the books on the St. John’s syllabus — a photo arranged and snapped by an undergrad — which has attracted student after student, year after year.

We who come here don’t just tolerate the inconveniences of this marginalized form of media — we lug the weight and hug the lamp because, ultimately, we form relationships with books that we can’t have with a screen. We don’t fall in love with Cervantes’ Don Quixote; we fall in love with our stained and dog-eared copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Books “mirror” our humanity, the President explained: a body in contact with a body.

“Books make us more human. They give and demand, offer and receive. This circuit is the circuit of love which counterposes the self and the other and merges the two.”

As August cools down to autumn, graduate students will start many new relationships. For those in the Literature segment, they will soon be cradling editions of Homer’s Iliad, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Students in the Mathematics and Natural Science segment will weave their fingers in the pages of Euclid’s Elements, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and the 1912 lectures of Carl Jung. 

If President Kanelos was right, then this upcoming semester, just like every semester of St. John’s, will be one of companionship, both in the classroom or wherever we find ourselves thumbing a page.

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Check back soon for the start to Santa Fe’s semester!

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