Thursday, October 4, 2012

Books, Libraries, and the Church

(This article appeared in L'Osservatore Romano (English Edition), 28 July 2010 (n. 30): 11, with the title "Necessary Implements for the Service of the Truth: the History and Concept of the Book and Library. I wrote it in collaboration with Abbot Michael Zielinski, OSB Oliv., then Vice President of the Pontitifcal Council for the Heritage of the Church.)

The American essayist Joseph Epstein observes that one very interesting way to appreciate how people differ is to note that some people's lives revolve around books, while others' do not. The interesting difference is not between literacy and illiteracy, nor between knowing or not knowing some particular great book. It is rather that, while for most people, books are a minor or incidental activity, there are others whose way of life is practically defined by reading. Not every culture has a bookish class. Not every society has libraries. In a highly literate civilization, however, books-and developed canons of books-form a cultural bedrock for which there can be no substitute.

Today it would seem true that books and reading and libraries are changing. More precisely, however, it is the case that texts are being circulated in digital or electronic form, and that libraries and readers can make use of new technologies to great advantage. If a book is simply information, and if a library is simply an information management center, then these realities are indeed subject to sudden and dramatic technological change. In a literate culture, however, books and collections of books are more than strings of data: they are human artifacts, developed over millennia and adapted to the nature human mode of growing in wisdom. Christianity is indeed the religion of the living Word rather than "of the book," yet, for the Church as a whole, books and the culture of literacy will remain necessary while the world lasts.
Writing, of course, is not new. Written records were kept by the ancients of Asia and the Near East. The rich and the powerful, at least, found writing useful to keep track of laws, calendars, finances, and so on. The oral traditions of people were sometimes committed to writing and preserved, surviving even into the present. Until the Christian era, however, the world had relatively few artifacts that modern people would immediately recognize as books. For reasons that remain somewhat murky, it was the literate Christians of late antiquity who showed a marked preference for the particular kind of written record that has given to us our books and libraries. In place of the scrolls, wax tablets, and inscribed stones used by earlier ages, Christians, by the fourth century of so, came to prefer the codex (plural codices), that form in which books are made down to the present day.

A codex is a stack of pages or leaves which are sewn, folded, or otherwise kept together along one edge. It has a spine or binding to support and organize the leaves, and it has pages to turn. Whether made of parchment, cloth, skins, wood, metal, or a modern paper, the codex-modeled book works a certain way, and invites certain kinds of handling, reading, and storage-that is to say, a certain kind of culture.

Hand-written, page by page, for the first ten or twelve centuries of its Western history, the codex progressively-thanks first to Asian block-printing and then to Gutenberg's invention of moveable type-became, especially with the advent of less expensive papers, something that more and more communities and individuals could possess. With printing came the first civic libraries: Europe's earliest, the Biblioteca Maletestiana, opened its doors to the citizens of Cesena, Italy, in the 1440s, and within a few centuries public libraries could be found across Europe and in Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

The significance of the civic or public library is manifold, and its practical and symbolic importance, especially for self-governing peoples, is not to be gainsaid. However, with the advent of the modern instantaneous media of communication-radio, television, and now the world of the Internet and digital data-the precise role of real books and real libraries (as opposed to "virtual books" and "virtual libraries") invites serious reflection.

If we are curious about the average annual rainfall in Buenos Aires, or where Napoleon was born, or how many species of ants are found in Africa, the fastest and easiest route to satisfying our curiosity is probably at our fingertips, in the form of a computer, mobile phone, or another electronic gadget with which we may consult encyclopedic digitized resources. Also, if we are curious about current events, the daily printed and digital news media will generally be more useful than books, at least until the events are past, and someone has taken the trouble to write about them at length, in detail, and with the perspective gained by the passage of time.

The paramount advantages of books (that is, of real, written or printed codices) and libraries (the real, and not the "virtual" kind) are not in their ability to give a fast, short answer to a sudden question. Rather, the advantages of books and libraries are to be found in their tangible physicality, in their ability to be handled and to be entered, respectively. A book, more than a scroll or even a scrolling electronic text, is a manageable, portable, permanent (but not impervious) object that is unsurpassed for the literate human activities of reference, research, and repetitive reading, all of which turn mere reading into study. Decently printed, it remains legible and stable for decades or centuries. And, if you lose your book, at least you have not lost your library or your €300 electronic investment.

A library, similarly, is more than an ethereal hub for data: it is, to our advantage, a place suited and reserved for the particular humane activities of reading and study. Allowing for variety and individual tastes, we may still say that some places with books are good libraries, and others are bad libraries (or not really libraries), precisely insofar as they foster the human attitudes and behavior that are consistent with reading and, more profoundly, with growth in wisdom. Wisdom, unlike data or information, does not come naturally to human beings except slowly, gradually, and laboriously. We need to hear words again and again, if we are to plumb their depths and be changed by them. There are silent lessons in libraries, reminders that circumspection, docility, caution, and memory are all needed for prudent understanding: bare information is, in serious reading, not enough.

For the life of goodness and holiness, neither books nor libraries are necessary in the strict sense. Simplicity or circumstance may put study beyond our reach, or Providence place it outside our vocation. Prodigious memory, too, can be a substitute for books, if one hears what it truly worth hearing: thus St. Athanasius says of St. Anthony of Egypt that he retained all he heard of the Scriptures, the liturgy, and the fathers, and so his memory "served him in place of books." For those with the ability to use books and libraries, and without either the perfect memory or the perfect seclusion of an Anthony, it is the case that books become very important indeed. Even libraries and bookcases themselves become sensible signs of the truth and of the high vocation to caritas in veritate. St. Epiphanius, a Palestinian monk and later bishop of Cyprus, took the view that acquiring Christian books was not merely helpful but "necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness." Our age's new technologies do offer immense advantages in certain kinds of information-seeking endeavor: for those whose lives are centered upon books, let alone upon the contemplation of the Word and His Truth, however, the familiar book and the library, set apart, remain the unsurpassed treasury and instruments of intellectual culture, and necessary implements for the service of the truth.