I have found another link in the chain of my past lives in the person of Richard de Bury (24 January 1287 – 14 April 1345). He seems to have been an exceptional man and I can only hope to approach his love of books as epitomized in his grand work, The Philobiblon. Writing and subsequently reading this work, which I’d like to discuss at some length, appears to be about the best possible use of anyone’s time in the fourteenth century.
I just need you to be prepared for what will follow. I will elaborate upon that volume and that is all that the rest of this post contains.
First, I would like to share with you the titles of the twenty chapters because each and every one is so wonderful and delightful.
- That the Treasure of Wisdom is chiefly contained in Books
- The degree of Affection that is properly due to Books
- What we are to think of the price in the buying of books
- The Complaint of Books against the Clergy already promoted
- The Complaint of Books against the Possessioners
- The Complaint of Books against the Mendicants
- The Complaint of Books against Wars
- Of the numerous Opportunities we have had of collecting a store of books
- How although we preferred the Works of the Ancients we have not condemned the Studies of the Moderns
- Of the Gradual Perfecting of Books
- Why we have preferred Books of Liberal Learning to Books of Law
- Why we have caused Books of Grammar to be so diligently prepared
- Why we have not wholly neglected the Fables of the Poets
- Who ought to be special Lovers of Books
- Of the advantages of the love of Books
- That it is meritorious to write new Books and to renew the old
- Of showing due Propriety in the Custody of Books
- Showeth that we have collected so great Store of Books for the common Benefit of Scholars and not only for our own Pleasure
- Of the Manner of lending all our Books to Students
- An Exhortation to Scholars to requite us by pious Prayers
This guy seriously loved books and, therefore, is a hero. Loving books was neither a common nor a generally acceptable pastime in medieval England.
I must confess, I have not read The Philobiblon in its entirety. However, I have perused a large number of quotations and have found them, one and all, to be exceedingly correct and meaningful and wow. I will not here present all of them but I do want to call a couple to your attention.
How highly must we estimate the wondrous power of books, since through them we survey the utmost bounds of the world and time, and contemplate the things that are as well as those that are not, as it were in the mirror of eternity.
The chapter goes on to relate how, in books, the whole of the world is opened to us, from digging minerals and jewels from the earth the the North Pole to the Milky Way. Through history and the lessons of those who came before; through science and a growing understanding of the world around us; through diligent study of literature and scripture–a mind and a world are opened.
An argument oft repeated in his work is that the whole of wisdom is contained in books, and thus the title. You may know that philosophy comes from the Greek for love of wisdom and, accordingly, philobiblon is the love of books.
This second quotation, which I encountered via a picture of the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library as inscribed over an entrance, inspired my journey of getting to know the venerable Richard de Bury. It says,
Books alone are liberal and free, they give to all who ask, they emancipate all who serve them faithfully.
Books cannot give you everything in life, I confess. But what they can give, they will provide without fail. The freedom of the mind is the freedom of the soul, and books are one of its favorite tools. A love of books has always served me well. In times of loneliness or companionship, melancholy or joy, faith or doubt; reading has seen me through. May we all be grateful for the gift of books without which life would be that much darker. Books are not perfect but they are, I think, perfecting. They continuously add to the global body of knowledge and they lift us as a society when we need lifting.
They give to all who ask.