Thursday, March 02, 2006
The Privilege of Books
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
of prancing Poetry.
Books are the quietest and most constant of friends;
they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors,
and the most patient of teachers. -Charles W. Eliot
The picture above shows the largest chain library that exists in England today. Oxford's was larger, but they de-chained it. We were able to visit this library which is at Hereford Cathedral on the marches of England. An elderly volunteer, whose excitement about what this library represented was easily caught, not only happily answered all of our questions but freely contributed stories of the contents and history of this wonderful treasure. Not just anyone, of course, was allowed access to these books - priests, monks, and noblemen were part of the privileged few, mainly because they were the only ones that could read. The books were chained because of their value. Hardly anyone owned their own books. To read from a book in the library, the proper key would have to be obtained to unlock it. It then would need to be read from at the table right underneath the shelf. No checking it out to read curled up at home in front of the fire. Many of the books on these shelves were handwritten and some were also illuminated. A copy of an illuminated Bible from the 800's was currently opened for display.
Talking about this place doesn't do it justice. Standing there amongst the shelves of these precious books humbled us. We weren't expecting to feel so humbled in this part of the cathedral. But as we looked at these fat tomes we tried to imagine the hours of labor that were involved in copying them so that they could be read in England and not just Italy, Greece, or Constantinople. We were struck by how much we moderns take for granted. To read books when this library was in use meant making the time to read, not just grabbing a book from your nightstand to help you fall asleep at night. We could learn something from that. Today we are surrounded by the printed word everywhere, but how many of us actually read much? So many feelings like this came to the surface as we looked at the chains, the benches, and tables. How many of us would have slogged through wind and rain to sit on these hard benches to read for several hours?
Over the course of our illness, much of the past year has been spent sequestered in our "four walls" here at home. Books have kept us company. Yes, we have movies and the Internet which have helped "take us away" as well, but books have been our dearest companions. We've never been more glad of their availability to us. We've never counted on them quite as much. We've never been as thankful for them as now. With bookstores both on-line and in town, libraries that can get us almost any book we could ever want, and our own library of treasures at home, we've traveled to new places; we've been entertained, taught, rebuked, counseled, and challenged. What a privilege!