There was, a couple of decades prior to the year 1000 AD, an aging French bishop, known only by the name Father Gerbert. He cared little for church politics and was considered to be at the end of his career within the church hierarchy. He was “stranded” at Reims, France, and considered something of a kook. But he had studied in Cordoba during his earlier years, which was under Moslem control.
Why Cordoba? He was a bright kid and western Europe was little more than a tenth century Mad Max scene of violence, bloodshed, poverty and extreme ignorance and superstition. Cordoba was governed by a Moor at a time when what we now think of as the Middle East was an oasis of civilization. When Gerbert first had an opportunity to experience Cordoba’s streets, his jaw must surely have dropped. The streets were clean and well lit. Crime was virtually unknown. Poets recited their work on street corners, and everywhere one could walk up to a crowd to hear a small group of intellectuals debate philosophy, literature, art, politics.
It was in this environment that Gerbert spent his formative years. In later centuries, he was considered the foremost intellectual in Europe, tutored the brightest minds of Christendom, and is now considered to have brought civilization to western Europe. But then, in a land so grossly violent, primitive and uneducated, he was widely mistrusted by the populace (starting to sound familiar?) and was even considered an agent of Satan.
But he wouldn’t have had the impact he had without a most valuable resource: his library. It wasn’t because of academic possessiveness that he came to own the largest library in Christendom; he had an abiding interest in knowledge and the wisdom to be gained from the books of all lands, concerning all subjects, from astronomy to earthbound botany.
My late wife collected books (among other things. When she passed and I began cleaning out her things, I had to gather up some 400 pairs of her socks.) and these were her homebound university. My old friend, songwriter and performer Eric Taylor, whom I knew has a massive book collection of his own, visited recently and wanted to see my library (it surrounds me as I type this post). Proudly, I ushered him in. “Oh, Bobby,” he began, “my…” Of course, I knew why he let the sentence trail off – my collection paled in comparison to his own.
This is the way of those who value the exercises of mind, of learning, over showy homes, cars, or electronic gadgetry. I suppose there’s a whiff of vanity hovering over these collections, but the main thing is the preservation of learning, of ideas in a world growing hostile to both. And that is what libraries are: preserved wisdom. And that’s why their value within society persisted and will continue to persist.
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