Monday, August 17, 2009

The Love of Books

"Whoever therefore claims to be zealous of truth, of happiness, of wisdom or knowledge, aye, even of the faith, must needs become a lover of books."
Thus ends the second chapter of Richard de Bury's Philobiblon.

The Philobiblon is specifically directed toward the monks and clerics who copied and studied the works of literature which we are fortunate to have today, but more generally it is for anyone who, as I do, loves books.

De Bury starts out by giving book lovers some advice about what one can find in books (Chp. 1), the affection that due books (Chp. 2) and the purchase of books (Chp. 3). In Chapter 1, he describes how books bring the dead to life again and the liberality of books, who alone give freely to all who ask and are willing to hear. With regard to the buying of books, de Bury would have us waste no time in the buying of book if we have the means, and offers use the tale of Tarquin the Proud as an example of knowledge which can be lost by not purchasing books according their proper value and at the proper time.

In chapters 4-7, de Bury takes the role of books, addressing those people and events which they have reason to complain against: against backsliding clergy, possessioners, mendicants, and wars. Against backsliding clergy who have forgotten the treasures which books have given them, against the possessioners who no longer study books but engage in worldly pursuits, against mendicant monks who deign to preach and teach but do not study (i.e., are ignorant), and against the wars and tumults of the world which destroy great works and libraries, such as Alexandria. Many of these problems exist today as they did in Medieval Europe: people who forget the treasures of books, people who turn to mundane pursuits, people who teach without knowledge and wars over not just destroying books, but over books themselves (think of the contemporary battles to ban various books from libraries).

Throughout the remaining chapters, de Bury stresses the importance of study of all manner of works (such as the moderns and poetry), of the handling of books with care, and of the lending of books.

De Bury's work, since it is primarily directed towards the clergy of the Middle Ages, reminded me of Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization, which discusses how the Irish monasteries preserved and reproduced the works of poets and philosophers, and how they spread those books throughout the Western world. They helped to reinvigorate education in a Europe which had been plunged into an intellectual drought during the wars and turmoil of the Dark Ages.
"As unconcerned about orthodoxy of thought as they were about uniformity of monastic practice, they brought into their libraries everything they could get their hands on. They were resolved to shut out nothing" (Cahill, 158).
This is confirmed in Eleanor Shipley Duckett's Monasticism. In Chapter 2 on Celtic Monasticism, she writes:
"It was good for the world that the young novice in the Irish monasteries of these times could read his Horace, his Vergil, his Roman satirists... Thus in the following age Ireland was to uphold the scholarship of Europe" (Duckett, 75).
The history which we are able to touch through this book is indeed great, but this work held a special message for me: it has given me an idea of what I am supposed to be doing with my life, and if everything works out over the next couple of weeks, I intend to follow through with that plan.

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