Literature, Poetry, and Books
May 5, 2009
I write from the British Library, which, like the Globe theatre, also didn't exist in those old days when you and I rubbed elbows with the Indian Hindus, and Pakistani Muslims, and Persian princesses, and easily-offended Irishmen at the International Students House at 10 York Terrace East. Remember the excruciating embarrassment watching the evening news with fellow students in the common room as James Earl "Jimmy" Carter became the Democratic front runner in the presidential elections. As I recall there was nothing partisan about it, just the shame that such a small-souled sanctimonious squirt of a man could conceivably be president of the United States. I like to remember that our Pakistani friends, especially keen on questions of honor, would politely change the subject--"let's watch Starsky and Hutch!" Fortunately we got out of town before our future president confessed the lust in his heart--to Playboy!
But I do not mean to talk politics, even old politics. The British Library was conceived before our York Terrace East days, but gestated slowly and came into being only in 1998. It's just a few stone throws from where we would have hung our hat if we could have afforded one between us--near St. Pancras Station on Euston Road. If it had been around back then, we would have spent many of our days here. It combines, along with other important collections, what had been the library holdings of the British Museum, which--to give an idea of scope--Lenin said held a better collection of Russian books than he could find in St. Petersburg or Moscow. It's very easy to get a reader's card, and there's free wi-fi for whoever wants to stroll through the front doors. The manuscripts on display are splendid--some of your students would like to trace with their eyes the straight lines of Jane Austen's hand-written pages, resting on her personal writing desk. There's a well stocked café, tables all over the place to sit and read or eat or have coffee and talk. And for those who know, there are secret balconies where one can sit and enjoy a Henry Clay--or, on a quest like mine, a Romeo y Julieta--if one is so disposed, and still have wi-fi.
But you don't have to be here to enjoy some of the library's wonders. Following the Shakespeare trail, while sipping a white Americano among throngs of happy and lively folks also sipping various brews and speaking countless languages at the dozens of sprawling tables or reading books or tapping away at their laptops, I wander on my free wi-fi to a wonderful feature online. Here can be found "the British Library's 93 copies of the 21 plays by William Shakespeare printed in quarto before the theatres were closed in 1642." The page I link to compares the first page of the first quarto of 1597 with the first page of the fifth quarto, 1637, of Romeo and Juliet. Flip through the pages, zoom in, and marvel.
I, for one, am inclined on occasion to stand astride History and say--"Well done!"