The Büchernarr

In the chapter “The Book Fool,” of A History of Reading, author Alberto Manguel cites a small volume of allegorical verse by one Sebastian Brant, published in February 1494 called The Ship of Fools — with illustrations by a young Albrecht Dürer. Yes, the book fool is the main attraction. “Brant,” Manguel shares, “had meticulously surveyed the follies or sins of his society” and one of these is “the folly of the scholar:”

The reader opening Brant’s book would be confronted by his own image: a man in his study, surrounded by books. There are books everywhere: on the shelves behind him, on both sides of his lectern-desk, inside the compartments of the desk itself. The man is wearing a nightcap (to hide his ass’s ears) while a fool’s hood with bells hands behind him, and he holds in his right hand a duster with which he swats at the flies come to settle on his books. He is the Büchernarr, the “book fool,” the man whose folly consists in burying himself in books. On his nose sits a pair of glasses.

I am quick to say, “Hey, what’s wrong with that?”

The popularity of Brant’s book gave way to many new editions and incarnations. In 1509, “humanist scholar Geiler von Kaysersberg began preaching a series of sermons based on Brant’s cast of fools.” Particularly colorful was his depiction and elaboration of the best fool there is. Ladies and gentlemen, the seven kinds of Book Fool:

  1. The Fool who collects books for the sake of glory, as if they were costly furniture . . . Geiler insists, “He who wants books to bring him fame must learn something from them; he must store them not in his library but in his head. But this first Fool ahs put his books in chains and made them his prisoners; could they free themselves and speak, they would haul him in front of the magistrate, demanding that he, not they, be locked up.”
  2. The Fool who wants to grow wise through the consumption of too many books. Geiler compares him to a stomach upset by too much food, and to a military general hampered in his siege by having too many soldiers.
  3. The Fool who collects books without truly reading them, merely flicking through them to satisfy his idle curiosity. Geiler compares him to a madman running through the town, trying to observe in detail, as he tears along, the signs and emblems on the house-fronts. This, he says, is impossible, and a sorry waste of time.
  4. The Fool who loves sumptuously illuminated books.
  5. The Fool who binds his books in rich cloth.
  6. The Fool who writes and produces badly written books without having read the classics, and without any knowledge of spelling, grammar, or rhetoric. He is the reader turned writer, tempted to add his scribbled thoughts to stand beside the works of the great.
  7. Finally—in a paradoxical switch future anti-intellectuals would ignore—the seventh and last Book Fool is he who despises books entirely and scorns the wisdom that can be obtained from them.

No further comments from my side of the Pacific, kids.

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