Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Browsing in a Used Book Store

I happened to be shopping in a used book store in the Delmar Loop neighborhood of University City, Missouri, looking for some books that I could use for article references. But this is not a musty kind of store, filled with unwanted volumes selling for steep discounts, but instead it seems to be a well-managed place, selling prime-quality books at a premium price.

I was looking for some architecture and philosophy books, and there were plenty to be found. One could presuppose what might be found in this store, based on its location and clientele: the Loop is near Washington University; which is a large, wealthy secular university with Puritan roots, an East-Coast student body, and Liberal politics.

The philosophy section of the store is relatively large, and is divided into 'Western' and 'Eastern' philosophy. The 'Western' section seems to reflect a belief that the study of philosophy is only a few centuries old, and is strictly materialist. Perhaps a third of the whole is the philosophy of Postmodernism, which promotes a lazy subjectivity based on feelings and emotion. Nowhere to be found are the great pagan thinkers of the Western world, from Socrates to Plotinus, who based their theories on objective reality; nor were there any volumes on the great Medieval synthesis of these philosophies with Christianity. The 'Eastern' section, however, was made up entirely of books of dogmatic religions that hold the philosophical view of objective reality, similar to the great thinkers of the ancient West. It is not surprising then that students who want substance in their philosophy can usually find it only in the Eastern religions, especially if what is found in this bookshop is reflective of what is taught at the university.

The single exceptional book I had found was on the subject of Aesthetics, the philosophy of beauty, which according to the ancients had an objective component: beauty is not just "in the eye of the beholder", but has a universal quality.

This brings me to the art and architecture part of the store, which is prominently located near the front entrance. Modern art took up a good part of the whole, but by no means the majority. Premodern architecture completely dominated the shelves, with few volumes on modernism and its offshoots. And the books about great premodern art are usually about Catholic art. Judging from the books on these shelves, no one is interested in postconcilliar religious art. The most expensive and beautiful books were on the Cathedrals. When it comes to Truth and Beauty, perhaps the philosophers are fooled, but the artists are not.

The Christianity section of the store is large and pretty good, with only a few obviously heretical works; this section is however, located in the back of the store. If any section of the store could be called 'musty' it would be here: I didn't see any obviously new books, even though Catholic publishing seems to be making a resurgence, with many new authors. General Christian publishing is huge these days, although it is ignored by the New York Times. By contrast, the Wiccan book section is right up in the front of the shop, and has numerous new volumes. This subjective, materialist religion seems to fit in well with the subjective, materialist Western philosophy sold here.

The music section of the store was suitably highbrow, and again was dominated by the Catholic classics.

So it appears that Catholic art, music, and architecture of the past is still hugely popular, and will have a great future again when artists, musicians, and architects choose to do it—and when the Church decides to patronize it again. Our current situation is an aberration.

Catholic religion is doing OK, but could do better. The word needs to get out that it remains always relevant. The poorly effected reforms of the last several decades has mainly driven people away from the Church, leaving a spiritual vacuum now filled with new religions with unknown ends and ethics, with an aversion to truth.

Catholic philosophy is a problem child. The West has given up on faith, hope, and love, and instead embraces power. The Enlightenment philosophes erased the memory of the great Medieval synthesis of philosophy, and deluded themselves into thinking that their own had invented science, and ignore the contributions of Aristotle and Aquinas. Philosophy, which means the "love of wisdom", is a poor name for Postmodern thought, since it rejects both the concepts of love and wisdom. And some would say that "Postmodern thought" is an oxymoron, due to its incoherence. So if anyone wants to find out about truth and love, they now have to look East. This problem of philosophy is a far more difficult to cure than either art or liturgy, for it is a problem of the soul.


  1. Are there any good cheap used bookstores in STL?

    And I always get a kick out of bookstores with an "alternative thought" section. This is the section that, should, nowadays, cover Aquinas, Aristotle, Ruskin and the like.

  2. I'm unaware of any good and inexpensive used book stores in Saint Louis. But every year the Famous-Barr department stores hold a large used book sale benefiting the Nursery Foundation. Recently, the sale has been held at West County Mall in Town and Country, Missouri. I think it is in April.