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Buying Used Catholic Books – A Newbie’s Primer

For as long as I can remember, I have had books handy. It started with a set of the 16 volume “Golden Treasury of Knowledge” from 1961, which my parents gave me when I was about eight years old.

I spent most of my youth sickly with asthma, overweight, socially awkward, and introverted to the point of solipsism. So books were a natural escape and haven from the world.

By the time I converted to Catholicism in 1999, I had a sizable and eclectic collection of books, mostly history and science fiction/fantasy. But the Faith presented a unique challenge: it wasn’t just theology. You name it: history, biography, literature, science, politics – and Catholicism can be found there.

Nineteen ninety-nine was also the year I got married to my Much Better Half, and I figured we should have some kind of Catholic reference library at hand for the inevitable questions.

I discovered that The Before Time had a lot to offer – so much so that I started focusing almost exclusively on Catholic books from before 1965 – specifically, the “Golden Age” of circa 1900-1960. Ever since, I have managed to amass more than 500 such books, giving me useful (and sometimes hard won) experience in evaluating books.

The purpose of this guide is to help an average reader search for and find books from that vanished time.

A couple of caveats. First, with genuine respect to non-English-speaking Catholics, this guide will focus on works in English. For reasons I will explain later, books in English were low-volume productions, and the market for Catholic books in English developed much later than that for works in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. Thus, if you are looking for books in those languages, you’ll probably have better luck than those of us searching in English.

Second, if you are looking at books as an investment, such is beyond the scope of this essay. I can’t help you with Renaissance-era manuscripts or something similar. The market I am familiar with won’t make you money.

With that in mind, this primer is structured along the following lines:

  • A general overview of Catholic publishing in English, including the limitations of the Anglophone market
  • Measuring the growth of Catholic publishing
  • Where do these books come from?
  • Why buy them?
  • How to search for older books
  • Where to buy used Catholic books and what if it can’t be found?
  • Is it worth buying in this condition?
  • The downside of older Catholic books

If you are looking to preserve and pass on gems from a time where the Faith spoke with confidence, read on.

  1. The Marginal Language

In our time, English has become the first truly universal world language. This is startling when you consider that for most of its history, it was spoken in one part of one island on the fringe of Europe. It owes its current prominence to both the British Empire and the United States.

So it is something of a humbling moment for English-speaking Catholics when they realize that for centuries, their language did not merit an afterthought in the life of the Church. Sure, there were the occasional towering figures like Reginald Cardinal Pole, but after 1558, England passed out of the patrimony of the Faith, and English Catholics became a persecuted, dwindling minority. Thus, the Empire that exploded onto the scene after the death of Queen Mary I was officially and fiercely Protestant.

To be sure, the brave men of the English College at Douai kept the flame lit, and many martyrs would bear the ultimate witness at Tyburn. But the harried condition of Catholics in the British Isles ensured that the contributions of English-speaking Catholics to the greater Church were limited. And the small number of English-speaking Catholics also meant that there would be little demand for translating Catholic works into English.

Until the turn of the 20th century, the Church in Britain, North America, and Australasia needed Bibles, catechisms, hymnals, and prayer books. Sure, the occasional high-powered Catholic convert made an impact, with the mid-19th century seeing John Henry Cardinal Newman in England and Orestes Brownson in America. Neither had trouble publishing.

The English-speaking Church was small and poor. In Britain, Catholics were emancipated and granted full legal rights only in 1829, and habit made them tread lightly.

America was a mission field with daunting problems. For example, in mid-19th-century New York, Bishop “Dagger John” Hughes had his hands full helping the traumatized and degraded Irish who flooded America after the Famine. He did so magnificently. Other American bishops faced similar problems, and a church of poor and unlettered immigrants is not a patron of culture. The Church would bless Newman and Brownson, but did not have the resources to do more.

  1. Cataloguing the Literary Coming of Age

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, English-speaking Catholics finally had their footing in both Britain and North America. Decades of emancipation in the former and successes in beating back fiercely anti-Catholic movements in the latter had led to legal and financial stability.

As a result, the English-speaking Catholic world enjoyed a publication explosion during the sixty years prior to the most recent council. Numerous publishers sprang up and offered not only works from Anglophone writers, but also translations of significant European Catholic material.

We can measure the publishing burst thanks to the remarkable efforts of the late Walter Romig (1903-1977) of Detroit. Romig was an energetic editor, author, compiler, and publisher of things Catholic. Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit keeps his memory alive with an annual award for distinguished lay alumni of the school.

But he deserves to be far better known for his tireless efforts on behalf of Catholic literature. For twenty years, he painstakingly chronicled the growth of Catholic works in the first six volumes of The Guide to Catholic Literature and in his six-volume The Book of Catholic Authors series. As a publisher, he also printed reference works to black Catholic and American Catholic convert authors. While I haven’t been able to find any verifiable biographical details about him online [1], I can say with confidence that Romig made it his mission to tell fellow Catholics and the world about the Catholic impact on the written word. All of this was done in the age of snail mail; card catalogues; and databases consisting of file cabinets, pens, and paper.

The Guide bears witness to this. The first volume covers 1888-1940 and totals 1,240 pages. The next volume covers 1940-44 and clocks in at 633 pages. So even in the midst of the planet’s worst conflict, Catholic publishing saw an astonishing expansion. The subsequent volumes show the growth continuing. The last volume edited by Romig covered 1956-59 and came in at 729 pages. Catholic books poured forth like an oil strike geyser.

By the end of the 1960s, the geyser guttered out, and the great old Catholic publishing houses – Sheed & Ward, Bruce Publishing, Burns & Oates, Benziger Brothers, Hanover House, B. Herder, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, Longmans Green, Newman, Joseph F. Wagner – went out of business, were bought out, or became shadows of their former selves.

Anglophone Catholics not only left “the ghetto” after Vatican II, but blew up their publishing industry when they departed. And while some new companies have come into existence since, most have little connection to the fallen giants of the past.

  1. Where Do the Used Books Come From?

Used books are on the market for as many reasons as there are owners. In my experience, the largest sources of used Catholic books are Catholic institutions. There is a veritable deluge of discards from abbeys, colleges, convents, parishes, and secondary schools.

You will find quality books from such places, even if they have markings. My most recent find: hardcover copies of Books 2 and 4 of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles. They were published in 1957 and had been in a Boulder, Colorado parish library. The books are feats of Catholic scholarship, the most recent translations that work. They are still in print in paperback ($30 each) but are extremely difficult to find in hardcover.

I did an online search. Yes, the particular parish is still open. But think about it: back in the late 1950s, a Catholic parish in the Mountain West saw the value of having a new translation of one of the central works of the Angelic Doctor. Sixty years later, the same parish shrugged and dumped it off at a local bookseller.

To be fair, they probably had no idea of its value. But that itself is a tragic commentary. This story can be replicated thousands of times in the used Catholic book market.

Fortunately, the neglect and disregard of Catholics from prior generations will help you build a collection for yourself or a tradition-minded parish. God again draws straight with crooked lines.

  1. Why the Old Stuff?

There are multiple reasons, starting with the fact that such are often the best available versions for English-speakers. The 1950s translation of Summa Contra Gentiles noted above is the best and most recent version we have of that work.

For my money, there are three more reasons to seek it out.

First, there is a tone of confidence, clarity, and determination too often missing from more modern works. Of course, such was (and often is) derided as “triumphalism,” one of those cuss words used to bracket the New-and-Improved Now from the Goodbye-to-All-That Past.  Increasingly, it seems to mean “Catholic who sincerely appreciates Church teaching.” See also “manualism” and “fundamentalism.” The vagueness and deferential timidity that too often infuse modern public Church-speak are rarely seen. Read the Radio Replies of Frs. Rumble and Carty, and you will know what I mean. It is a bracing tonic.

Second, you will see that all was not well with the Church before the 21st ecumenical council, and Catholics knew that. There was an awareness of growing relativism, the deadening effect of materialism, and a thirst for novelty accompanied by throttled impatience with traditional answers and practices – sometimes warranted, more often not. In short, you will understand how the conciliar chaos was fostered, was embraced, and still roils the Church today.

The third reason stems from what I call “the duty to remember.” As an American, one of the great strengths of our culture is the determination to seek new horizons, break new ground, and use ingenuity to tackle old problems in a new way. But that comes with a cost – we have an increasing tendency to not only favor the new, but reject the past. That attitude has spread across the Western world.

That happened in spades after the most recent council – so much so that even conservative Anglophone Catholics function as if the Church didn’t exist prior to 1965. I daresay that a lot of traditional Catholics, especially the newly minted ones, aren’t all that much more connected to the past.

As I was researching for more details about Walter Romig, I stumbled across this excellent 2015 blog post by Karl Keating, who relates that he was given a complete set of The Book of Catholic Authors. He argues that re-connection to our literary past is critical:

In six volumes are profiled at least three hundred Catholic writers I’ve never heard of. I don’t think of myself as ill-educated, and I’m familiar with many more writers than I’ve read, but still … [w]hat happened to them? They disappeared down the memory hole.

Some may say that they deservedly disappeared, that their writings weren’t worth preserving. Maybe so, in some cases. But even the names I recognize – good writers all – are known to few Catholics today. [David] Goldstein? [Winfrid] Herbst? [Daniel] Lord? [John A.] Ryan? [Daniel] Sargent? Few literate Catholics under sixty have heard of any of them. We have lost our literary consciousness, and we won’t be able to hope for a Catholic society until we get it back.

So it is with us. If we remember our duty to remember the voices of the past, we can find examples on how to live in our crisis. That alone makes the quest worthwhile.

  1. How to Search Them Out

Not surprisingly, the best bet is to buy or borrow books to find more. Romig’s reference works – both the Guide and Book of Catholic Authors – are impossible to over-praise. The former is more direct, but the Books also describe major works. If you can get access to either set, do so. You should identify what you are looking for.

The Catholic Bookman’s Guide is a bibliographical review by subject of Catholic works on a variety of topics. While its critical assessments of books are sometimes flawed, it is invaluable as a compilation.  Benedictine Br. Matthew Hoehn’s two volumes of (then) Contemporary Biographical Sketches of Catholic authors are also good guides to writers and their works.

And while it might seem obvious, readers sometimes forget to consult the bibliography section of older works, which are themselves gold mines.

For those more inclined to the rhythm of the Information Age, yes, there is an online resource. Preserving Christian Publications is a non-profit organization that acquires and sells older Catholic books and even republishes books from the era. Recently, PCP unveiled its “Catholic Bibliographical Index,” which compiles thousands of older books by title, author, publisher, and page count, and PCP often has copies of the works in its store. It is a remarkable resource that deserves to be widely known.

  1. Where to Buy…and What if I Can’t Find It?

Let’s assume you have identified the book you want. Where can you buy it?

My go-to hunting weapon is Bookfinder, a bookseller aggregator with over 100,000 sellers in the search engine.

In addition, you can purchase directly from many Catholic booksellers and publishers. I have had good experiences with the following publishers and sellers [2], in no particular order:

In addition, the recent development of public domain print-on-demand publishing can help, but the product can be disappointing. I have seen mislabeled offerings, incomplete copies, slipshod scans, faint print, and less-than bindings.

Happily, none of those descriptions applies to Forgotten Books, an English publisher of public domain books. I have picked up copies of the works of Charles Callan, O.P. from F.B. and have been impressed with the quality of the product. It is always well bound and perfectly legible.

One caveat: a good reprinter might not have all of the volumes of a particular author’s work, even if it is in the public domain.

This brings me to my final point in this section: what if I can’t find what I’m looking for from any seller?

The sad reality is that it may no longer exist. It can be safely presumed that Catholic print runs were often much smaller than their secular counterparts, barring a rare “hit” or paperback run.

Still, keep your eye open and a search tab running – rarities have eventually turned up.

  1. Is This Book Worth Buying?

So you’ve found the older Catholic book you are looking for. But is it worth buying? Many sellers include a picture of the offered book, and sometimes even multiple pictures showing the book’s features and imperfections. That’s ideal but uncommon. However, even in the absence of pictures, there should be a rating describing the condition of the book. If there isn’t one, don’t buy it.

If you are used to the precision offered by coin-sellers in describing their offerings, banish it from your mind – book ratings are more subjective.

This web page contains a fairly common rating system. Obviously, unless it is a reprint, you will almost never see “New” or even “Like New” when it comes to older books.

The above link is a bit quirky. In my experience, “Near Fine” is rarely seen, and instead, “Like New” describes that kind of book.

The best you will see, and the kind I focus on, are in the “Very Good” category. It usually includes a dust jacket (if it came with one) and has a tight binding, minimal shelf wear, and clean pages.

The category I’ve had the widest range of experiences with is in the “Good” category. This is a metaphor for our times: sellers, too, have divergent ideas on what “good” means. “Good” should mean a step down from V.G.: an adequate (not loose) binding, more shelf wear, possibly discolored pages, a dog-eared dust jacket. But as I have said, “Good” can be all over the place. The more details as to the condition of a “Good” book, the better.

Oddly, I’ve been happier with “Fair” category buys, which the link adequately describes. There’s more wear than “Good,” but it’s better than a battered reading copy. From what I’ve seen, a bookseller using “Fair” is being cautious, and you are more likely to be pleasantly surprised.

Finally, another often seen rating category is “Acceptable,” which also suffers from too much subjectivity. As a general rule, “Acceptable” is another name for “Fair,” but usually with more markings – library stamps, pen notations and underlining, and similar demerits. But they have the merit of usually being the cheapest copies.

Ultimately, the better booksellers will be more conservative in their grades. You should thank them for it – either in the email or with a favorable rating.

  1. What’s the Catch? Or the Downside of Older Books.

There are three caveats to keep in mind with respect to the old stuff.

First, older is not always better. Substandard books were published back then, too. A popular history textbook still used in homeschooling circles mentions the Council of Nicaea but makes no reference to the Arian heresy. And the Protestant Revolution era somehow omits a discussion of Luther.

Second, while the tone of older books is bracingly confident, it can also be unduly harsh with respect to non-Christians, especially Jews. This usually happens in books issued before the horrors of the Holocaust became widely known, but it is unpleasant nonetheless. As it turns out, even Catholics can be people of their times, with all the good and evil that implies.

Finally, older books can be overtaken by events. Two examples, the first benign, the second malignant.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in Israel in 1947, causing a veritable earthquake in biblical studies. I like older Catholic biblical studies and commentaries. But none has great coverage of the Scrolls, as even post-1947 studies that refer to them did not have the full picture. It’s a flaw you have to live with.

The second example involves Eric Gill. Gill was a talented English sculptor, architect, and typeface-crafter who converted to Catholicism in his adulthood. He became a Third Order Dominican, was active in promotion of Catholicism, and was considered a model of lay apostleship in the world. Gill died of cancer in 1940 at age 58, having decided to refuse treatment. He is featured in the otherwise excellent St. Dominic’s Family, a collection of biographical portraits of prominent Dominicans across the century. In 1989, a new biography of Gill was published. To the shock and horror of Gill’s Catholic admirers, the biography revealed that far from being a model Catholic layman, he was a warped pervert whose diary recorded, among other things (advisory – link has additional warped details and artistic nudes) the sexual abuse of sisters and daughters.

In other words, historical discoveries can supersede some of the judgments of the past and reveal perceived heroes as villains.

Conclusion

While not being either perfect or a portrait of a perfect world, older Catholic books offer an invaluable glimpse into a different era of the Church.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” When you sit down with a Catholic book from the past, you are giving our deceased brothers and sisters a chance to speak once again. They have much to teach us, and advice to give, if we are willing to sit and listen.


[1] A squib biography that turns up on some websites says Romig was the illegitimate son of traveling circus performers. His father had hooks for hands following severe frostbite, and young Walter was raised in an orphanage. The squib correctly notes that he attended Sacred Heart Seminary and that the school has an award named for him. But the more colorful details are not verified and should be treated with skepticism.

[2] To forestall objections: I am speaking to the quality of the goods and services I have received. I am not offering a blanket endorsement of everything offered by the publisher, much less each and every theological stance taken by people affiliated with the particular publisher.

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