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To say the late I. John Hesselink was into books is akin to saying Mozart was into music. According to John’s widow Etta, there were 90 floor to ceiling bookshelves in their house. How the house didn’t slowly sink is either the result of solid engineering or perhaps a special deputation of angels who held it up for decades. This isn’t a case of Bibliophilia, this is Bibliomania. One of his sons put it well: “My Dad was a hoarder of knowledge.”
What a legacy!
The question following John’s death last fall was what to do with all those books. Etta took a thousand or so of the most significant volumes to her new home. She shipped over 70 boxes to the Theological Book Network. She has another group ready to go to Japan. She’s invited countless friends like me into the house to peruse the equivalent of a used book store specializing in theology, poetry, and sports. I think I’ve made six trips and have taken home so many books I have also taken home one of the 90 bookshelves to hold them.
Dr. Hesselink loved to get his books signed, and in the sports section I found an autographed edition of Daly Life, the memoir of former Detroit Pistons head coach Chuck Daly. The inscription says “The Institutes its not, but I hope you enjoy.” (It seems perfect to me that he underlined “The Institutes” while missing the apostrophe in “it’s.”)
I am endlessly amused imagining how John worked Calvin’s Institutes into a conversation with Chuck Daly. There would have been so much for them to talk about: double dribbles and double predestination, free throws and free will, common fouls and common grace. Hesselink contemplated depravity; Daly coached the Bad Boys. Imagine the intricacies of comparing “Buddha” Edwards to Jonathan Edwards or Laimbeer, Dumars, and Rodman to Luther, Barth, and Calvin. Who else but these two could weigh the merits of the three-point play versus the five points of Calvinism? Hesselink sought to know God but Chuck Daly knew Michael Jordan. I like to think the man who befriended the original theological Dream Team of Barth and Brunner had a rich conversation with the coach of the original basketball Dream team of Bird, Magic, and Michael.
Dr. Hesselink and I shared a belief that basketball and poetry have much in common, and through Etta’s generosity I’ve significantly upgraded my poetry collection with volumes by Emily Dickinson, James Merrill, Robert Frost, Stanley Kunitz, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams.
Not only does so much depend on a red wheelbarrow, so much also depends on whether any of these books were signed. Alas, they were not. (believe me; I checked.)
There is a signed volume of poetry by Oscar Wilde, but before you get too excited let me assure you the signature is a reprint. Wilde died in 1900 and this volume has a copyright of 1913.The signature accompanies a poem to his wife. That seemingly innocent presentation may raise an eyebrow or two, but I am mostly comforted by his use of the obscure word “proem.” Wilde uses it in its classic sense, meaning preface, but I think of the way Brian Doyle uses proem as a mashup of prose and poem, which describes Doyle’s poetry style. (Similarly, Wilde once said he wrote “prose sonnets.”) Dr. Hesselink would have loved Brian Doyle’s proems, and I’m sad that I never shared Doyle with him. Etta, on the other hand, doesn’t mind. It would have meant another 30 or 40 books to figure out what to do with.
I picked up the collected works of Ring Lardner, the sermons of John Donne, and more than a dozen volumes of Anthony Trollope. I love the Victorian Trollope, the metaphysical Donne, and the American satirist Lardner, and when I reflect on my tastes I think I must be strange. The styles and lives of those three are miles apart. But then I find them close together on my old professor’s shelves and feel less alone in the world. Isn’t the discovery that there are others in your tribe one of the great gifts of reading? When is a book more than a book? When it is a bridge or a door that offers a way into each other.
With so many options, it may be surprising that the first of Dr. Hesselink’s books I’ve sat down and read cover to cover is Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman. She’s not as well-known as some of the authors I’ve already mentioned, but this is a delightful book about Dr. Hesselink’s favorite subject (after Calvin): books. I recommend it now as a bridge between us. Fadiman is so engaging she could make an essay about the history of the folding chair interesting. Here she has a great topic: the joy of reading, writing, and the love of books.
If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and locate a copy. It’s witty and wise and a lot of fun, and it feels so appropriate to celebrate the life of a great reader by reading a book that beautifully celebrates the reading life.
I have thought a lot in the last week about whether or not the dispersion of a private book collection is an appropriate topic for The Twelve. As you can see, I decided it is. My belief is what holds the rag-tag collection of our readers together (and God knows we don’t exactly hold together on a lot of things) is our love of reading and the fact that each of us, in our own way, is a hoarder of knowledge. Keep reading!