Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Patron Saint for Catholic Bibliophagist

The Man Who Loved Books
by Jean Fritz, illustrated by Trina S. Hyman, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NY, 1981.

I sometimes envy my children their childhood. They grew up with book-buying parents. My own parents were proud of my reading ability, and even took me to the library to check out books. But I do not remember our family having any books except the World Book and Childcraft, and I don't think I had any books of my own until sixth grade when I was tapped by my teacher to join an after school reading group which read and discussed children's classics. And we got to keep the books!

I don't really remember anything about the meetings or the discussions, but I still have a vivid mental image of some of those paperback books: A Christmas Carol, slim and grey; Huckleberry Finn, yellow, brown, and white, radiating the hot Missouri sun; and Little Women, whose pink cover, with its illo of the March sisters grouped around their mother, was a treasured keepsake long after the book itself had fallen apart from much reading. Those paperbacks were the beginning of my own personal library.

My own children had a very different experience growing up. For one thing, their mother had an enormous collection of children's books. (I'd collected them long before I had kids -- even before I had any intention of marrying -- because I like children's lit.) So there was lots of stuff at home for them to read or have read to them. And of course we bought them books as presents on all major gift-giving occasions. But the other major difference was a formative period in their youth when we instituted The Monthly Book Treat. Once a month we'd take them to a very good children's book shop in our area and allow each of them to choose one book for their own private collections.

Obviously, this took place during a rather flush period of our family's financial life. I doubt if it went on for more than a year, but it seems to have been successful in inculcating the bookbuying habit among our progeny.

If you too are trying to raise a brood of little bibliopahgists, you cannot do better than to read about St. Columba, the subject of The Man Who Loved Books. Columba lived at a time when "books were still such a new thing in Ireland, they were hard to come by. If someone wanted to read a new book, he might have to walk the length of the land just to find one. If he wanted to own the book, he would have to copy it by hand."

Thanks to the timely injunction of a prophet, Columba learned to read early. The letters of the alphabet were baked inside a cake, and as soon he'd eaten and digested it he began reading and writing. When he grew up, Columba was determined to read every book in Ireland and to make his own copy of every book he read. But most books were owned by monasteries which sometimes they hid their books from Columba because the monks were proud of owning the only copy of a work.

In one instance Columba's good friend Finian allowed him to read a new book which had just been brought back from Rome, but stipulated that he must not copy it. But the temptation was too much for Columba who secretly sneaked into the library every night to make his own copy. Just as Columba finished it, Finian discovered his deceit.

Both men claimed ownership of the new copy. Columba insisted that the High King judge the case, but the king ruled against him saying, "To every cow belongs her calf, and to every book its son-book." Columba swore to be avenged. His sympathetic kinsfolk fought and killed 3,000 of the High King's men. Then Columba's temper died down and he was SORRY. (You see, there really is going to be a moral to this story!)

The worst penance Columba could think of was to banish himself from Ireland so he sailed to Iona where he built his own monastery. He traveled, preached, built churches, made copies of the Bible, and even converted the King of Scotland. But he missed the joy of seeing new books. (Personally, I think that must have been an even harder punishment than banishment.)

Jean Fritz also recounts some of Columba's later adventures such as his mediation of a dispute between the bards and the kings of Ireland. She says that Columba died doing what he liked best, copying a book. Not a bad way to go.


mrsdarwin said...

We found this at the library recently and it was enjoyed by offspring and parents alike. The illustrations were perfect for the story.

Maureen said...

Here's a picture of the little book that started the big war.
The Cathach (Battler) of St. Columba