We didn’t intend for it to happen; it just did. It actually began on our honeymoon, when we popped into quiet, out-of-the-way bookstores in Paris between visits to more traditional tourist spots like the Eiffel Tower and Versailles. It continued during the couple of years we lived in Europe, where we scoured used bookstores in towns like Hay-on-Wye, Wales; Strasbourg, France; Salzburg, Austria; and Dublin, Ireland. But mostly it happened closer to home—date nights at our local used bookstores, online ordering, semi-frequent weekend getaways to new towns, and Friends of the Library book sales. After more than twenty years of book browsing, searching, and purchasing, my husband Josh and I currently find ourselves with a growing collection of around 13,000 books that we view not just as a personal library, but as a legacy for our six children and (God willing) grandchildren.
In the early years, we accumulated classics from my college years as an English major, Protestant classics and ministry helps from our time as church leaders and missionaries, and spiritual texts and theology tomes from my husband’s stint in seminary. Then came homeschooling and our conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, and our acquisitions shifted to children’s classics, historical fiction, history, and science, along with early church fathers and broader theology selections. More recently we have immersed ourselves in classical education and philosophy and our library’s growth has reflected those subjects. Our library has become an evolving timeline and biography of our family’s story.
When others walk into our library, they are often struck by the floor-to-ceiling shelves and the books stacked here and there waiting to be mended, catalogued, or shelved. They sometimes see too much work and too many texts that take up too much space. To us, however, our library is not merely words from dead authors or antiquated relics of the past; it is a living representation of our family’s heritage, our expansion as we added children, our moves to new places, and our growth in wisdom and knowledge. That Jane Austen book with the Shakespeare & Co. stamp? We purchased that in Paris in our first week of marriage. The poetry book that Josh carries with him everywhere he goes? He rescued that from a dumpster outside the Catholic school near our house in Ireland. That signed copy of G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy? I picked that up for one dollar at a library book sale in our hometown. The copy of Rifles for Watie with the cover falling off? Josh has read that aloud to our family at least five times. That old, ratty Bible? It belonged to the grandfather Josh never met, complete with the devout man’s notes and underlines.
These books are part of our family. And when I say books, I don’t mean paper and ink and spines. I mean the stories they tell, the truths they contain, the lives they lay open for us to experience. We, like the Hebrews with God’s Laws, speak of them when we sit at home and when we walk along the road, when we lie down and when we get up. Our children have been raised by the saints and the sages who inhabit our shelves. The characters and the authors are our friends, our confidantes, and our mentors. These books have a way of telling us something important without shouting it, and that’s a good thing, I think, not just for children but for all of us.
About five years ago, I ran across an idea on a homeschooling forum that expanded my vision for what our personal library could become. I read about a few homeschooling moms who had opened their personal libraries to other families and operated them like little private libraries. This serendipitous discovery came to me at a time when I was feeling overwhelmed with the number of books we had and yet how little space we had to house them. Within a few months we had completely renovated our extra-long single car garage into a separate library space, and soon after that we opened it up to local families.
Due to this new purpose (and having become convinced of the power of living books in one’s education after seeing the fruit in our own children’s lives) our book purchasing became more specialized. We began acquiring older books in earnest. Those written before 1965 tend to have higher vocabulary and more complex sentence structure—beautiful, inspirational writing that is not dumbed down and that treats the reader with respect. These books have a clarity between virtue and vice and the ability to enliven a child’s imagination with truth and goodness. With few exceptions, these types of books are not being written anymore, and the ones that were written are often out of print and no longer to be found at the public library. Our desire is to rescue them from inevitable recycling and put them into the hands of children (and adults) who will read and be inspired by the wisdom they contain.
Our hope was that our library would be a help to families that did not have the money, the space, or the desire to buy all the books they needed to homeschool their children. We never anticipated the response from our patrons, nor the blessing that the families would become to us. A natural community has arisen out of our little library. Once a week our doors open and in come our patrons—the kids to choose their books for the next few weeks and then go play outside with my children and our menagerie of animals, and the parents to choose their own books and sit and chat about the week over a cup of tea. It is our own created liturgy—a recurring moment of calm and connection in the midst of the chaos of our homeschool lives.
We were also not expecting further opportunities for service to emerge. We now serve not just homeschooling families, but also families whose children attend both private and public schools. We have a book club for moms and one for teens. We’ve hosted a classical education book study and we have organized a state wide homeschool conference. I’ve been given many opportunities to share with groups and individuals about the vital role of living books in developing a well-educated person. All of these enterprises were organic outgrowths from the community forged through the library.
Best of all are the friendships—with moms who came in desperate, burned out and wanting to quit, with single moms who have no other support, and with parents who love books as much as we do. Our family went into this venture hoping to serve a few local homeschool families, and instead we have found ourselves surrounded by a growing community desiring to learn more of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
This community comes at the perfect time. As classical homeschoolers, we have heard the admonition to “repair the ruins,” and we are all attempting to do that with our children with every Latin chant, grammar recitation, and close reading of Homer. Even still, the ruins seem to be crumbling around us faster than we can rebuild them. I’ve heard this feeling of despair expressed from countless parents; Josh and I have felt it at times ourselves. Yet, we can look to history for hope.
Saint Benedict, born in the aftermath of the fall of Rome, was so appalled at the licentiousness and depravity of his peers that he forsook a life of privilege and retreated and lived in a cave for three years praying and seeking God. Eventually, he was persuaded to become the abbot of a monastery, and would go on to found twelve monasteries of his own. He also wrote a little guidebook, now known as “The Rule of Saint Benedict,” that taught the monks the axiom ora et labora—pray and work. His efforts helped usher in a monastic age that, during the ensuing “Dark Ages,” would preserve learning, scholarship, and the Christian faith in the West.
Our library has become like a little monastery. We, like the monks of old, pray and work. We pray that the Lord will grant us His mercy and His help as we work to build up a community of people who will spur one another on in deepening our mutual commitment to Christ and to the passing on of our cultural heritage. In ourselves and in others a simple love of books grew into a love of truth, which has burgeoned into men and women who have centered their lives around pursuing intellectual, moral, and spiritual virtue. Our procurement of books began as a hobby, and then was a necessity for our homeschooling, and now continues as a personal imperative. We envision our library becoming a refuge for weary souls, a place of encouragement and teaching, and, indeed, a repository for the preservation and proliferation of Western civilization, come what may.