Reading the Readers


I like to buy books at a bargain – when I can and if I can. These days, books often come at a bargain with Amazon’s listing of used books. Occasionally the prices are almost irresistable (especially for a book lover). What has become of occasional interest to me can only happen with a used book. The ad reads, “some writing in the margins.” I can hardly resist. There is the book to read and the reflections of someone else who read the book.

It’s an incomplete experience – you are reading snatches of a conversation between the reader and the writer. If you’re fortunate an insight might be hidden among the notes. And often as not the reader is just emoting along the margin and the book gains an echoe.

One of my earliest such experiences was in seminary. One half of my seminary (in modern times it was the offspring of a marriage between two older seminaries) was founded in the mid 1800’s. One of the early founders had made a trip to England to raise money for the American Midwestern adventure – and to raise something far more valuable – a library. He prevailed upon various English dons to share the abundance of their private libraries with their less well-equipped American cousins. The result was a delight. My own adventure into that delight was to study St. Gregory Nazianzus in a text that had once belonged to John Henry Newman.

Those were notes worth deciphering (indeed, they were occasionally in Latin).

My largest volume of Father Sophrony’s work, Saint Silouan of Mount Athos, is heavily notated. But in this case it is not the notes of a scholar – simply the notes of someone who likes to disagree occasionally with the text. It can be rather jarring to turn the page of someone’s work whom you pretty much revere as a saint and to see a large “NO!” scribbled in the margin. It makes me read more carefully. It also makes me wonder what the reader actually thought. That mystery will remain unsolved.

But the contrast between note and text have reminded me of Tradition. Tradition is not a 2,000 year old argument among Christian scholars. There are long-running arguments among Christian scholars – but they have little to do with Tradition. Tradition is a stream of life – a continuity running through the life of the Church and the lives of her saints. It is the Life of Christ, finally, that we encounter in place after place. Winding its way through languages and media, it bears witness not to many truths, but to a single Truth.

Though I have my own likely differences with Newman, I recognize that he is likelier car closer to Saint than I, and I realized when I was handling his book, that he and I were in deep agreement on at least one thing: the text in front of us was the text of a saint. There were no “No!”‘s scribbled in his steady hand just the gentle assent of the human spirit to the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the work of Tradition – deep speaking unto deep.

There are those books you own that you know belong to such a Tradition. They are not the stuff with which we argue but the stuff which we ponder. To me they are made only more valuable by having been held in hands before mine.

One of my sons-in-law has been assigned to a Russian-speaking parish. I had a valuable treasure that was given me several years ago. I have made it his treasure now. It is a Sluzhebnik, a service book, in Slavonic, for the Divine Liturgy. Only this one is written in pencil in a small notebook. It was written in the Displaced Persons camps after World War II by a Russian-priest acquaintance whom I helped bury several years ago. His family gave me a number of his priestly tools for my own. It is a Tradition that continues flowing. It is a joy to think of one, written in pencil, flowing in the tongue of my daughter’s husband. For this is so much the life of the Church. Not just the Tradition you know, but the life from which you received it. I often think that when someone asks me to explain Apostolic Succession that there are no words to completely explain it. It is hands laid on the head of a man, but it is also the stories and the lives of those who laid their hands. It is Chrismation, an oil mixed and blessed only once every three years – but containing a portion of the oil that went before it – and for how many years now? When I smell the Chrism at Baptism, I know that I share an experience, a smell, with thousands of saints before me. The Holy Spirit is the Life given us – the Living Tradition that leads us into all truth. But sometimes He does so on the margins of a page, or in an odor in the air. How rich and wonderful are Thy ways, O Lord!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





14 responses to “Reading the Readers”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is from an exhibit last summer at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is a shot of some of C.S.Lewis’ diaries, in which he mentions a conversation with John Betjeman, the English poet. Lewis was his tutor at Oxford, though they seem not to have been friends. My son couldn’t resist taking a photo of Lewis’ handwriting.

  2. marthajaneinortn Avatar

    This is good. I mean it is an intriguing to think about. It seems related to my impulsive transcribing passages word for word into my journal. That is for me like wrting a big YES in the margin when there is something I want as a signpost on the highways of my heart. I mostly borrow rather than buy books, so I am not free to add to the notations. I rather like this, even with the books I do own, because each time I read them, it is as for the first time. I do occasionally go through these journals and transcribe parts of the transcriptions, rather than commenting in the margins. There is one passage in St Silouan of Mr Athos that I don’t quite “agree” with, but it seems that rather than writing a NO, I would write a “BETTER GIVE THIS SOME THOUGHT”.
    or “WHAT IS THE TRUTH HE IS GETTING AT HERE?” or “MAYBE IT WILL TAKE A WHILE FOR ME TO GROW INTO THIS”. If I am inclining toward too many big NO’s I will probably put a book down, as I don’t like reading as an argumentative experience.

  3. Kevin P. Edgecomb Avatar

    Father, I recommend to you (and any others interested) and, both of which list more used books than amazon alone, the listings of which both include. I’ve managed to find a couple of Fr Georges Florovsky’s volumes for relatively cheap using them, as well as numerous other goodies.

  4. design101 Avatar

    Extraordinary! Suddenly, I don’t feel like an oddball! I write notes in books, especially my Bibles; I can’t help myself. I was chastised, once, for writing in books, and I’ve wondered if I should discard my journals. Father, you said that writings are the Life of the Church, so I’m now thinking that I can be at peace, knowing that my writings are a part of this Life of the Church.

    I purposely buy old books at rummage sales, library sales, and second-hand stores. I once came across a Fanny Farmer cookbook – something I had always wanted but, at the time, could not possibly afford. I believed that God had made it available for me. The fact that it was stuffed with recipe clippings from the Christian Science Monitor and personal correspondence deepened the blessing.

    I use the cookbook and have kept the clippings and correspondence in place because I feel honored carrying forth the inheritance that lies in the book’s history.

  5. Clare Avatar

    After reading your passage the first thing that came to mind was my summer annotation project for English. I have wondered whether people would ever find the books I have written in, (as I find myself doing with every book I read, whether it is for school or pleasure), of any value afterwards. It is heartening to realize that someone other than myself (although I could have inherited it from you) enjoys reading side notes, and there is hope for my books afterall.

  6. Gina Avatar

    Ha ha, I wrote such notes in the book *Becoming Orthodox* once. I imagine there are even some No!’s there. Funny how with time a No! can become a YES!

    I also like used books for this reason. I bought one recently that has a photo of a young woman tucked inside. Someone’s girlfriend or daughter?

    Have you ever left such an artifact in a book you donated or in a library book on purpose?

    P.S. Your post fills me with joy at the prospect of raising a family and being able to pass on to them not only our rich natural heritage, but the far richer Orthodox heritage, too.

  7. rdreusebios1 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Father Bless!
    A most interesting and insightful musing. I too am a “book writer-inner” if you will, and have been castigated on numerous occasions for what many perceive to be a most annoying habit.
    Unlike others who have responded, I often lack the grace to refrain from boisterous disagreement, particularly in my major field of study (History, emphasis in 20th Century American) Academia, or perhaps academic publishing houses have, it seems, succumbed to the temptation to produce texts in great quantity, while of dubious quality with both anthologies and shortened (read cheapened) versions of texts that lack footnotes and/or bibliographies, but alas I ramble. My point is, I often make heated comments in the margins.
    On the other hand, I have several of Fr. Schmeman’s books, along with a number by C.S. Lewis, whose margins I have simply filled with awestruck comments like “wow”. I must admit though that your entry has given me pause to actually connect my musings to something bigger than myself.
    Thanks to all for the thought provoking comments as well, and, keep on marking those margins up!

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I began buying used books back when I was in college – mostly old, used, Latin and Greek texts, since they were hard and expensive to come by new. Sometimes I found old tests (one from Oxford that made me choke on how hard it was). I realized that even the Classics were dumbing down (we just weren’t as well trained).

    I generally find that it’s this other reader, who is now reading over my shoulder (or is it me reading over his?) that fascinates me, and in some sense connects me to this stream.

    I am not surprised to read that my favorite youngest child (Clare) is also marking in her texts. They are doubtless comments worth reading!

  9. Damaris Avatar

    Just to weigh in on the other side . . . I really don’t like to read someone else’s markings. It distracts me from immersing myself in the author’s ideas. I feel as if I’m sitting next to someone chattering while I’m trying to listen to an interesting speaker. But don’t let me stop you all! I like what you say about the connection with others.

  10. Gina Avatar

    I went back and checked and found not as many No!’s in the margins of Becoming Orthodox as I thought there might be. The only time I wrote that was objecting to the image from Psalm 45 of the queen being applied to St. Mary, about which Gilquist says something like “Christ in heaven and Mary at his side as His Queen.” I wrote, “No! The church is Christ’s bride.” There were a lot of ???’s at other spots, and some remarks I’m now familiar with from others’ critiques of Orthodoxy, such as “Evangelical leaders lack authority, but why in Catholicism (and Orthodoxy?) are the clergy considered holier than ALL believers?” and “What is so wrong with Christ as Head of the church and the HS as guardian of truth?”

    I actually wrote some Yes!’s too, agreeing with some criticisms of evangelicalism such as Romaphobia.

  11. Beth Avatar

    I know that the imagery of Mary at Christ’s side as Queen is hard for some to accept. I was struck by the following passage when I read it not long ago, reading it this time with my ‘Orthodox eyes:’

    2 Kings 2: 19-20

    19 When Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah, the king stood up to meet her, bowed down to her and sat down on his throne. He had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat down at his right hand.

    20 “I have one small request to make of you,” she said. “Do not refuse me.”
    The king replied, “Make it, my mother; I will not refuse you.”

    The Theotokos is the certainly the Queen at the side of the King in this sense…

  12. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    “It is Chrismation, an oil mixed and blessed only once every three years – but containing a portion of the oil that went before it – and for how many years now?”

    That is so cool! I never knew that.

    Seeing Newman’s handwriting in a book is priceless. I like Newman. It’s easy for us to say, “He’s not Orthodox.” It wasn’t a viable option for him in 19th century England.


  13. Gina Avatar

    >>The Theotokos is the certainly the Queen at the side of the King in this sense…

  14. Gina Avatar

    Oops… some code snafu. After the close-quotes I wrote: “Beautiful, thank you for pointing this out.”

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