The optimist says the glass is half full, the pessimist that it is half empty, and the imaginative conservative asks why the glass is twice the size of what it needs to be. He soon discovers that his cup always runneth over. Because the unbought grace of life cannot be purchased, it can be challenging to find gifts to give the man who already has most everything he wants except for peace on earth, goodwill toward men, and the thousand-or-so books on his ever-growing Amazon.com wish list. Aside from having the new library wing built on the back of the house, there is one addition that is sure to make a lasting impression; a personalized bookplate. The bountiful art of life is what an imaginative conservative seeks to cultivate by plowing through his reading. Should not he have an individualized piece of artwork to adorn his most treasured books?
I first encountered the significance of a bookplate nearly two years ago to the day when I had the good fortune to peruse Friedrich August von Hayek’s personal library now entombed in the law library of the University of Salzburg in Austria. Hayek’s bookplate shows the wise owl of Minerva soaring over mountains not unlike the ones made famous when they came alive with the sound of music. Hayek said “mountains breathe freedom,” and so this simple symbolism surely seems fitting for the sage who penned The Constitution of Liberty.
Many of the five thousand books Hayek collected had his personal bookplate. Many of his books also had previous owners who had left their mark under the covers and in the margins and over the years these inscriptions outlasted the ontological upheavals and economic downfalls that Hayek had so insightfully exploded. Hayek had many books about history and many of his books also had a history.
It might be a fun exercise to contemplate what symbols The Imaginative Conservative readers and writers would compile in their personalized bookplates. Once a bookman’s bookplate is struck it can be fashioned into adhesive stamps that can be stuck onto the pastedown inside his books’ front covers. The indelible image of a bookplate becomes the book’s unique tattoo, and like a tattoo, which Roger Scruton incisively perceives is man’s attempt to emboss himself with some symbol of spirituality, the bookplate affixes the spirit of the bookman to the books and lives on for all eternity—or at least until Station 451 comes to remedy the situation.
Those of us who’re hoarders and scavengers of books which deserved to be salvaged enjoy the enchantment that comes with the mystery of where a book may have been or what it might have meant to its past readers. If it is true, as scientists in recent years have discovered, that some infinitesimal bit of spiritual matter attaches to everything we touch like supernatural hitchhikers, it might explain why we feel a mystical thrill when we open books that have been in the hands of countless others. Those of us who shop the bargain bins on Amazon find it’s a special treat to obtain a monograph that’s been artfully autographed, or a copy of a great book in good condition that’s been thoroughly read and thoughtfully annotated. The special side-bar conversation is continued, the line of descent becomes clearer, and we realize we are a link in the book’s great chain of being.
As Anthony Daniels recently wrote, channeling Burke’s eternal contract, we are not really the owner of our books but only the temporary guardian of them. Our short time this side of eternity is a spark’s flash in comparison to the length of time that the old truths found in our books can help light the way for those who follow us. I was fortunate to acquire a pretty healthy portion of an art philosophy professor’s personal library at her estate sale and I’ve always felt honor bound to be careful not to break her bindings or crack her spines. Many an imaginative conservative will pass on their libraries to their progeny and many of them will no doubt scatter the books like a dandelion’s seeds in the wind. When those wayward books carry a bookplate or some accounting of their travels they are more likely to find good mental soil in which to put down roots and be carefully tended by the next guardian/gardener.
Permit me to plant a seed or perhaps even start a gift-giving trend that I hope might catch on like wildfire and turn into a tradition. Inspired by the tale Brad Birzer tells of Christopher Dawson’s treasured library that he inherited from his beloved uncle, I struck upon the idea to bequeath my entire collection intact at my passing to a precocious young imaginative conservative with a burning fire in his belly to imbibe the winnowed wisdom and best traditions of his ancestors. Imagine being awarded, instead of a scholarship from some charitable foundation’s fund, a library full of the world’s best and most foundational thinking!
Perhaps each year we at The Imaginative Conservative could all chip in and give the gift of a complete set of Britannica’s Great Books Series or the Harvard Classics (I’ve got an extra set I’ll donate this year if we can find a worthy candidate), or maybe better yet; Dr. Lee Edward’s 101 Right Books for the Intelligent Conservative or one of Father Schall’s extraordinary lists. Hopefully in the coming dark days it won’t be too hard to find a match among The Imaginative Conservative’s readership for the criteria I’ve set for the recipient of my library: a voracious reader with a reverent and fiery willingness to “rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.