Showing Honorable Respect in the Care of Books

Richard de Bury - The Philobiblon - 1345

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    First, then, let there be considerate moderation in the opening and shutting of books, chat they be not opened in headlong haste nor, when out inspection is ended, be thrown away without being duly closed. For we ought to care far more diligently for a book than for a boot. But the race of scholars is commonly educated badly and, unless it be curbed by the rules of its elders, becomes accustomed to endless childishness. They are moved by petulance; they swell with presumptuousness; they give judgment as though certain of everything, whereas they ate expert in nothing.

    You shall chance to see some stiff-necked youth sluggishly-seating himself for study, and while the frost is sharp in the winter time, his nose, all watery with the biting cold, begins to drip. Nor does he deign to wipe it with his cloth until he has wet the books spread out before him with the vile dew. Would that such a one were given in place of a book a cobbler's apron! He has a nail almost as black as jet and reeking with foul filth, and with this he marks the place of any matter that pleaseth him. He sorts out innumerable straws which he sets in divers places, evidently that the mark may bring back to him what his memory cannot hold.   These straws, because the stomach of the book does not digest them and no one takes them out, at first distend it beyond its wonted place of closing and at length, being quite overlooked, begin to rot. He halts not at eating fruits and cheese over the open page and, in a slovenly way, shifts his cup hither and thither. And because he has not his alms bag at hand, he casts the residue of the fragments into the book. With endless chattering he ceases not to rail against his companions and, while adducing a multitude of reasons void of all sensible meaning, wets the books spread out in his lap with the sputtering of his spittle. And what shall I say more? Soon doubling his elbows, he reclines upon the book and by his short study invites a long sleep and, by spreading out the wrinkles, bends the margins of the leaves, doing no small harm to the volume.     And now the rain is over and gone, and the flowers have appeared on the earth. Then the scholar whom we are describing, a neglecter rather than an inspector of books, will stuff his book with the violet, the primrose and the rose, yea, also with the quatrefoil. Then he will apply his watery hands, all damp with sweat, to turning over the volumes. Then will he pound on the white parchment with his dusty gloves, and line by line hunt over the page with a fusty leather finger. Then, at the nip of the biting flea the holy book is flung aside, and scarcely being shut within a month's time, becomes so swollen with the dust that has fallen in it that it cannot obey the effort of one who would close it.
    Especially, moreover, must we restrain impudent youths from handling books those youths who, when they have learned to draw the shapes of letters, soon begin, if opportunity be granted them, to be uncouth scribblers on the best volumes and, where they see some larger margin about the text, make a show with monstrous letters; and if any other triviality whatsoever occurs to their imagination, their unchastened pen hastens at once to draw it out. There the Latinist and the sophister and every unlearned scribe proves the goodness of his pen, a practice which we have seen to be too often injurious to the best of books, both as concerns their usefulness and their price.

    There are also certain thieves who make terrible havoc by cutting off the margins for paper on which to write their letters, leaving only the written text; or they turn to various abuses the flyleaves which are bound in for the protection of the book. This sort of sacrilege ought to be prohibited under pain of anathema.

    It greatly suits with the honorable behavior of scholars that so often as they return to their study after eating, a washing should always precede then reading. Nor should a finger smeared with grease turn over the leaves or loosen the clasps of the book. Let no crying child admire the pictures in the capital letters, lest he defile the parchment with his wet hand, for he touches instantly whatever he sees. Laymen, moreover, who look in the same way at a book
lying upside down as when it is open in its natural way, are wholly unworthy the intercourse of books. Let the clerk see to this also, that no ditty scullion greasy from his pots and yet unwashed shall touch the lilies of the books; but he that walketh without blemish shall minister to the precious volumes. Again, a becoming cleanness of hands would add much both to books and scholars, if it were not that the itch and pimples are marks of the clergy. As often as defects of books are noticed, we must quickly run to mend them; for nothing lengthens faster than a slit, and a rent which is neglected at the time will be repaired afterward with usury.

    Moses, the meekest of men, instructs us in the thirty-first chapter of Deuteronomy how to make in a becoming way bookshelves for books, where they may be kept safe from all injury. "Take," saith he, "this book and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God." Oh, fitting place and seemly library! made of imperishable shittim wood and overlaid round about with gold without and within! But all unfitting neglect in handling books is excluded by the example of our Savior Himself, as we read in the fourth chapter of Luke. For when He had read the prophetic scripture concerning Himself in the book that was handed Him, He did not give back the book to the minister until He had closed it with His own most sacred hands. By this, students are taught most clearly that not even that which is least in the care of books should be neglected.

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