Incomprehensible treasures are on display at The British Library in London. It’s not the kind of library that any Joe off the street can just walk into, pull books from the shelf and check things out for three weeks- no, it’s a research library and one that houses very nearly one copy of every book published in the UK and Ireland. I didn’t actually touch a single book (unless you count the ones in the book shop) but will be applying for a “reader’s pass” the next time I go. That credential will allow me access to the secure, monitored rooms where you’re only allowed a few items such as a pencil, pad of paper and a laptop computer in a clear plastic bag, and you must leave all other belongings in a locker or coatroom on the lower level.
The British Library is secure and precious, and damn well should be. You don’t check out books; you research on the premises, but the accommodations are ample. The largest single WiFi network in Europe is in The British Library and the purpose-built modern building has many types of study desks, power points, benches, seats, and quiet areas for the serious browser. A restaurant, two caf?©s, and a spacious courtyard give the weary researcher plenty of options to recharge. I’m in love with this place. It’s architecturally beautiful, obliging, and just feels good to walk into. A place of scholars, enthusiasts, researchers, writers, and more.
Now, about the treasures…
In a very secure and darkened room sit some of the world’s most precious writing. The first item I laid eyes on was the only surviving copy of Beowulf (early 11th century). Next to it sat Canterbury Tales (around 1410) and to the right of that The Iliad of Homer (around 1712-20*). These are hand-written originals. Everything I am about to describe is.
The original Alice’s Adventures Under Ground with its illustrative wonders (1862-64), Jane Eyre (1847), Jane Austen’s writing desk, A Sketch of the Past by Virginia Woolf (just months before her suicide), proofs of some of W.B. Yeats poetry, the scrawled manuscript of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce! What inspirational stuff to look at!
And then, the music. The handwritten scores of Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Fugue in A flat major, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and the absolute jewel of them all: a reunited manuscript by Mozart. It had been cut in two by his wife to increase its value and it now sits whole at The British Library!
Along with these masterpieces come bits of scrawled lyrics of Beatles songs, Galileo’s first scientific publication Sidereus nuncius (1610), and pages from the famous Da Vinci notebook. Rounding out the scientific treasures were letters from Darwin and Isaac Newton.
I’ll leave it to you to do your own research on any of the publications I’ve mentioned, but truly, if you’re in the area, visit The British Library. It’s not your typical tourist attraction but the treasures are some of the most important in the world.
Note: This post took several days more than I’d planned. I’ve been rather busy with work lately, so my apologies for not getting to this sooner. (At least the subject matter is hardly going out of style, I mean, shit- Beowulf? Not exactly time-critical material here… heh. 😉 )
*Clarification: this copy of The Iliad is the Alexander Pope translation