Books, Homes, and Al-Jahiz

Books, Homes, and Al-Jahiz September 9, 2016
My bookshelf
My scripture bookshelf

Living in New York for six years, I developed the habit of looking for new housing. New Yorkers are constantly on the hunt for a deal on a bigger place, a cheaper place, a better place. For comparison, we lived in a 700-ft2 apartment in Brooklyn for $1500/month and considered ourselves lucky. Now when visiting Utah, my wife and I and her family sometimes do the Parade of Homes in Salt Lake City, or St. George. Now, “Utah” is not always a good proxy for “Mormons,” and the Parade of Homes even less so, but every time we go, I have the same gripe at virtually every house— “There are massive TVs in every room, but no bookshelves anywhere! They’ve got a Home Theater room, but no library. They’ve got built-ins, but no built-in bookshelves! Do these people not read?! Is there really a market for wealthy illiterates?!”

I thought of this recently while reading Darwin’s Ghost’s: The Secret History of Evolution. It details Al-Jahiz, a 9th-century Muslim scholar living in Basra, who had some ideas like Darwin, though less developed. But it was the world Jahiz lived in that struck me.

“Wealthy patrons built elaborate palaces, libraries, and gardens in Baghdad and lavishly endowed hospitals, but they displayed their wealth most ostentatiously in competing to commission translations as a demonstration of their sophistication and their pious dedication to the expansion of knowledge” 

“compelled by the desire to rediscover and translate lost knowledge, [they] sent out emissaries to hunt for ancient Syriac and Greek manuscripts in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. Scholar-explorers knocked on the doors of monasteries and sent requests to patriarchs in Alexandria, Antioch, Edessa, and Gundeshapur in the hope of discovering more Greek manuscripts, many of which, like Aristotle’s, had been banished to basements or cellars or left to rot in derelict and crumbling libraries.”

So, wealthy people showed off their wealth with… books and translations of books, and a dedication to knowledge? Huh.  This Muslim collection, preservation, and translation of ancient philosophy and science is what eventually kick-started the Renaissance, btw. What motivated Jahiz and these others? “It was the scientific curiosity of the world Jahiz lived in, a curiosity enjoined by the Qur’an…”

I’m not familiar with those Qur’an references, but I thought of various D&C passages.

 seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. (D&C 88:118; 109:7)t

study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people. (D&C 90:15)

grant, Holy Father, that all those who shall worship in this house may be taught words of wisdom out of the best books, and that they may seek learning even by study, and also by faith (D&C 109:14)

obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man (D&C 93:53)

American society in general is turning away from reading, for pleasure or otherwise. Do we Mormons take these injunctions seriously? Do we seek books, knowledge, learning, languages, history, etc.?

As for Jahiz, what was his fate? A noble and learned death.

“According to popular lore, he was crushed to death when a wall of books fell on him.”

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  • DeAnn Spencer

    Thanks, Ben for your love of books and learning. You are an inspiration to me. I would love to compare bookshelves and reading lists (outside of your scholarly reading). I’ll have to read Darwin’s Ghost.

    • Thanks! It’s quite readable, a “popular” book. Minimal footnotes.

  • Josh Sears

    My new goal in life is to live to a nice old age, and then be taken out swiftly by my own mountain of books.

    • Yes, I’m pleased by the number of LDS who have expressed a humorous desire for bibliomartyrdom 🙂 There are still readers out there.

      • TN Spackman

        I thought bibliomartyrdom was actually the death of a grad student completely e´crase´ by the weight of reading assignments….

      • Judith Aylesworth Tavares

        Glad to know my affliction has a name: “bibliomartyrdom”. I plan to retire in 100 months and have a house full of books that I plan on reading, one per month, until then. The problem is the footnotes which often refer to another book which I then HAVE to order on Amazon.com then put a sticky note in it to remind myself of why I bought it and what book it goes with and that increases the pile of books. There’s no cure for this, right?
        This started with “How the New Testament Came to Be”. Check the footnotes and see how many books this will “cause” you to buy.

  • Diana Lott

    It’s the same with all of the “house of the year sweepstakes” on HGTV, the first thing I look for is where will the bookcases go… my DH has given up the fight over books- even my sewing room has two bookcases!