Friday, February 13, 2009

Time and Books

The relationship between books and time is explored by Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton in the second chapter of their Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (Norton, 2008). They argue that in medieval monasteries:

Emphasis on the written word of God provided a religious rationale for the preservation of written knowledge after the infrastructure of civilization collapsed in the West. As the most devoted Christians, monks and nuns relied especially on texts, both sacred and profane, to mark out every hour, week, and year of their lives together in monastic communities. …

Contrary to the popular image, the monastery was more than an institution devoted to tending lifeless manuscripts through centuries of darkness, bridging two periods of light, classical antiquity and the European Renaissance. Instead, its dual devotion to texts and to time constituted a reinvention of knowledge … (41f.).

The earliest libraries, such as the one at Alexandria, facilitated the creation, translation, collation, synthesis, and dissemination of texts. They transformed “a largely oral scholarly culture into a largely written one” and “made the Greek intellectual tradition both portable and heritable” (3). But in monasteries, texts functioned “not merely to orient individuals during their time on earth but to sustain the wider monastic community itself over the generations” (55).

Image: The Medieval Clock, Salisbury Cathedral, available from: Completed in 1306, this clock is perhaps the oldest running clock in the world and part of what is thought to be the first European clock tower.