Patience & Fortitude – a history of libraries

I found a wonderful book in the library here, and I’m rolling through it as quickly as I can:  Basbane’s Patience and Fortitude which has the wonderful subtitle: “Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go About the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy.”

A  completely dry and boring description would say that it is a book about the history of libraries.  In fact, it’s much more like an adventure story.

Nicholas Basbane, through research for his earlier book  A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books, began to realize that books – by which he means both the physical object and the knowledge or perspective that it communicates – really have a fragile trajectory through time.  None of us, today, think anything of it when we read Plato, the Bible, or even the works of obscure medieval mystics – usually in a relatively inexpensive paperback edition that we can pick up easily.

How easily any of these manuscripts could have been lost – some actually were for hundreds of years.   Librarians and archivists are the heroes and heroines in a series of adventure stories that highlight manuscripts hidden and recovered, libraries burnt or spared, and the constant interplay between the desire for private ownership and the importance of open access – especially during the time of hand-copied manuscripts.

Patience and Fortitude (the lions outside the New York Public Library) is an excellent book for monastic readers.  Monasteries, of course, had a major hand in the copying and transmission of books for much of the medieval period.  Moreover, some of the most remote monastic locations – Mount Athos in Greece, for instance – have often been the place where some now-valued manuscript has been carefully kept – sometimes by monks who did not really know what they had – for centuries.

For anyone who, like me, has a large and growing appreciation for the importance of libraries – a ready education available to all, the preservers of knowledge even when its use cannot be foretold – this is just a wonderful book to read.

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