The opening folio of a fifteenth-century manuscript of The City of God

Starting today and running through November 26, Christian Book Distributors is having a “Black Friday” sale on The Early Church Fathers—the compilation of English translations upon which we’ve based our reading schedule. If you are committed to the long, seven-year haul (or if you want to sink an investment to keep yourself motivated!), the entire thirty-eight volume set will be sold for $220, with free shipping within the U.S.A. At less than $6 a volume, this is probably by far the lowest price one could expect to pay for an extensive set of patristic literature.

Should you get the bound paper set? We’ve already noted a couple of drawbacks to this edited collection, in addition to the sheer bulk of nearly forty volumes looking for shelf space. The entire set has been made available free online (including all editors’ introductions and annotations), so if you’re reading this post, you already have all that you need to read the fathers.

Yet we know some of our readers may feel that the physicality of a book forms an important part of their reading experience. You are in good company if you feel this way—no less an eminent reader than Augustine of Hippo frequently pondered over his interaction with bound parchment texts—sometimes to an obsessive degree. When requesting that his recently completed City of God be copied, he wrote to the Carthaginian Firmus:

There are twenty-two books, which are too many to put together in one volume. If you want to make two volumes, they should be divided so that one volume has ten books and the other twelve. Those ten, of course, refute the vanities of non-believers, but the rest present and defend our religion, although, where it was more opportune, I defended our religion in the first ten and refuted their vanities in the last twelve. If you want more than two volumes, you must make five. The first of them should contain the first five books, in which I argued against those who maintain that the worship clearly not of gods but of demons contributes to the happiness of this life, while the second volume should contain the five that follow against those who think that many gods, whether such gods or any whatsoever, should be worshiped through sacred rites and sacrifices on account of the life that will be after death. Now the three other volumes that follow should have four books each. For we divided that part so that four books would explain the origin of that city, the next four its progress or, as we prefer to say, its development, and the final four the ends due to those cities.1

For Augustine, it was supremely important that the physical division of his writings not interfere with the conceptual divisions.2 One disadvantage to our seven-page reading regimen is that it risks obscuring the larger whole of a work, and keeping the physically bounded copy in one’s hands may lend a firmer sense of orientation, especially within longer works like The City of God. For this reason I for one am planning to read the fathers using paper books, either The Early Church Fathers set or other translations that we recommend along the way. Whether that’s the best choice for your situation is, of course, entirely up to you.

  1. Letter 1A* to Firmus, The Works of Saint Augustine: Letters, vol. 4, p. 230 (2005).
  2. Thanks to modern methods of typesetting, The City of God occupies a single volume in The Early Church Fathers collection, along with On Christian Doctrine.