Bibliophilia: Books on Chains

Hereford Cathedral chained library
Hereford Cathedral chained library

Wherever you’ll find me, you’ll find me carrying books. It’s something that I’ve always done and something that I will always do as preventative measure to ward off boredom and people who want to talk to me on the bus (weirdos, right?).  Beyond that, it’s just fun to take your books on vacation to a new comfortable spot where you can really settle into the pages.  Most books are small enough to fit comfortably in a backpack or jacket pocket and especially now with the advent of the e-reader books are more versatile than ever. But books have not always been so easy lug around, especially academic books.

When I was in school Norton’s Anthology of American Literature was the book that all the English majors would complain about carrying. With the book being roughly the size and weight of a cinderblock, it’s somewhat understandable; but that’s nothing compared to what our academic predecessors had to put up with, especially if we consider chain libraries. Chain libraries were libraries where the books were literally chained to the shelves. They were popular back in the days before printing presses when every book was written by hand. Since the books were written by hand there were only very few of them making them materialistically and philosophically priceless.  If someone stole one of these books, beyond losing the material possession the library would also lose the ideas contained within the pages. Hypothetically speaking, it would be like if you owned the only copy of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim but then your friend Jake borrowed it and “lost it while moving” and then, as a consequence, no one would ever be able to read it again. David Sedaris’ essay about drowning a mouse on his front porch would be forever lost to the ages. You’d definitely put a chain on all of your other books.

One of the more famous chain libraries around the world is the Hereford Cathedral chained library. The library was created in 1611 “following an investigation into the care of the books.” Some of the more valuable books in the collection date back to the year 800. Included in this selection is even a rare version of the gospels.  Then there is also Marsh’s Library in Dublin. And while it is not technically a chain library, it did have cages in which it locked up its patrons while they were studying anything from the library’s collection. As much as I enjoy the versatility of books I have to admit that there is something very aesthetically pleasing about keeping these books exactly in their place. Even beyond the utility of chain libraries I believe it’s the idea that a book has a place where it perfectly belongs. If anywhere, handwritten books from the year 800 belong chained in a European cathedral. Just like a copy of the yellow pages with missing pages belongs chained inside a derelict phone booth next to a gas station.

I really like the idea and began thinking of some of the books I loved the most and where I think they belong. For instance, I think there should be a copy of William s. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch chained to desk in the back row of any class a high school student finds boring. I also think that there should be a copy of Richard Brautigan’s Dreaming of Babylon chained to a trolley in San Francisco. So what do you think? Where would you, if you could, chain a book? Do you think that there is such a thing as the perfect place to enjoy a book? Or are you glad that we can take books wherever we want and not have to worry about this kind of thing? Please leave some comments below so we can continue our conversation on the versatility of books, chain libraries, and friends who we don’t borrow stuff out to anymore because they are the reason that chain libraries were even invented in the first place, Jake.

– Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes

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