Tag Archives: books

Much Ado About Doodles

One of the best things about being an independent scholar (whatever that term means) is that my enthusiasms are no longer policed by the academy.

Note: Which is not to say that academics are unenthusiastic about their topics. It’s a truism that academics have a proprietary relationship–well, really, they fall in love with–the subjects of their research. One need only go to an academic conference and watch people unabashedly nerding out about Chaucer or planetary rovers or chaos theory to know that’s true.

No, this is all a very long way of talking about how I saw some of John Dee’s books—and the doodles, notes, and marginalia within—and am unconstrained in saying that it was pretty freaking magical.

Portrait of John Dee. Sixteenth Century, artist unknown. Original in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

Portrait of John Dee. Sixteenth Century, artist unknown. Original in Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK.

***

The circumstances that led up to my sitting in the reading room of the Royal College of Physicians, quietly waiting to pay my respects to Dee’s books, were a perfect example of the kind of generosity of spirit and collegiality among many academics on Twitter. I had heard that the Royal College of Physicians would be doing an exhibit on John Dee, the 16th-century magus and mathematician who is widely thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero (Scholar, courtier, magician: The lost library of John Dee). Unfortunately for me, the exhibit was ending in late July, and I wouldn’t be in England until late August. I was sure I would miss this chance of a lifetime. I bemoaned my luck on Twitter, tweeting out “Oh, to be in England, while John Dee is there…”

Within a day I was thrilled to have a response from R. Satterley (@rsatterley), tagging the curator of the exhibit, Katie Birkwood. Katie generously offered to show me some of the highlights of the exhibit when I was in London, a month after the official end of the show. Katie spent almost an hour with me, and we talked about a wide and fascinating array of topics: how the books were stolen from Dee’s library and found their way to the Royal College of Physicians; Dee’s wife, Jane Dee, and what her life might have been like (in a word–odd); and Dee’s mathematical interests and drive to codify and record everything from the weather to his wife’s menstrual periods. Katie was so very kind and immensely knowledgeable. Thanks, Katie! <waves>

The first thing Katie showed me was, she said, one of her favorite parts of the exhibition: a doodle Dee had drawn (probably in 1545 when he was a student at Cambridge, as Katie notes in the video below starting around 2:40). It was found in a compendium of Cicero’s work’s, tucked in a corner by a poem about the “foaming, frothing seas.” The drawing is of a ship that seems almost to glide off the page, the perspective foreshortened in such a way that it floats toward the viewer. I had viewed the digitized image before my trip, but seeing it in person had a much more visceral effect. I was embarrassed to say this to Katie, fearing it would be too fanciful, but it reminded me very much of the scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, in which Eustace, Lucy, and Edmund stare at a painting of a ship rolling on the sea, staring gape-mouthed as it materializes in front of them until they are drawn into the cold, salty ocean.

That idea—of a picture, a doodle, a painting that manifests itself in person, that jumps the dimension between concept and object, the materiality of that idea—captured my imagination. I started thinking about the differences in seeing a picture of an object and the object itself. Why did it seem different, somehow, to experience these books in person rather than to view them on my computer, 7,000 miles away? Do we know, at some deep, molecular level, that we are in the presence of the thing itself? Does that materiality connect us more intimately than an image separated by distance and time? Is it all in our imagination, and if so, is that any less real?

I’m reminded of one of the best stories I’ll ever be able to tell in my life.

Five years ago, the magnificent Ursula K. Le Guin came to my local library with photographer Roger Dorband to talk about their book Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country. At dinner after the presentation, the table talk drifted to how, let’s be honest, there’s something a little weird about wanting an author’s signature on a book. As Le Guin put it (paraphrasing here), “I’m happy to do it, of course, but I do think sometimes, ‘I’ve just given you my words—thousands of them!’” We talked about how the signature seemed like a material proof of connection, of experience. My husband nodded sagely and said, “Hmmm, maybe you could just lick the book instead?” (For the record: Le Guin laughed and laughed, and when it came time to leave, she gave my husband a little pretend air lick.)

It was all great fun, but really, I think there’s something there.

At the risk of sounding as esoteric as Dee, I think books and writing retain some residue of the people they’ve encountered. “Books speak to us,” we say, and sometimes I wonder if we’re being strictly metaphorical. Why else do we run our fingers over their spines, trace the lettering on their backs and covers, flip through pages as though visiting an old friend? There’s something profound about the physical manifestation of our most cherished ideas, thoughts, experiments, and emotions made solid and shared, a way for people to connect across time and space through the simple touch of a pen to paper.

Or you know what? Maybe this is just a flight of fancy of my own. Maybe this deep sense of connection we feel when seeing somebody’s actual writing, or doodling, or jotting of notes, the joy and connection people find when an author has signed their book, is all in our imaginations. But I ask you: If so, does that make it any less magical?

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Ex libris

“King Charles I at the Bodleian Library,” by William Gale

I believe that most people (or at least the people I want to know) have a special “library place” in their hearts. It’s what causes the smile that breaks when entering a new library; the shiver on catching the familiar whiff of old books; the frisson of anticipation after realizing that stacks and stacks of books can be taken home and savored.

Libraries have been a big part of my life for the last five years.  In 2007, my community’s library was closed for lack of funds, leaving 82,000 American citizens without access to any public library whatsoever.  Unthinkable, right?

Long story short: a group of very cool folks got together and fundraised and fundraised some more and re-opened the library as a nonprofit.  There are hopes that we can pass a library district in the near future so that the library is again sustainably funded, but in the meantime we all work like crazy to keep the doors open (more here: www.josephinelibrary.org).

So last year, when I planned my first solo trip to England—sans husband and kids, free to direct my steps wherever I wanted without worrying about potty breaks, snacks, or pending soccer matches—it was only natural that at the top of my must-visit-or-else-what-the-hell’s-the-point-of-going list was Oxford’s storied and magnificent Bodleian Library.

The Bodleian, built in 1320, was Oxford’s first university library (meaning it wasn’t attached to one specific college). That original library, smallish and uninspiring, expanded when Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated over 200 valuable manuscripts in the 1440s, so the university constructed a new room over the Divinity School. (Harry Potter fans: note that the hospital wing scenes with Madame Pomfrey were filmed in the Divinity School, and all of the Hogwarts library scenes were filmed in Duke Humfrey’s library.)

Duke Humfrey’s library, finished in the 1480s, lasted about 60 years until, under legislation passed under King Edward VI meant “to purge the English church of all traces of Roman Catholicism,” the library was stripped of all books and manuscripts containing “superstitious books and images.”  (Why do I include this in my short history of the Bodleian?:  it is perversely of some comfort to me to know that my town’s library is not the only victim of shortsighted thinking on the part of autocratic politicians.)

The Bodleian was resuscitated in 1598 by an injection of funds from Sir Thomas Bodley, after whom it was renamed. Bodley established three guidelines that have shaped the Bodleian’s character:

1)      He established an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that would direct the mission of the Bodleian to this day: a copy of every book registered with the Stationers’ Company was to also be deposited at the Bodleian. This agreement transformed it into a critically important repository of learning in England for the next four centuries.

2)      He determined that scholars from all universities should have unfettered access to the holdings of his library, a generous and liberal policy that allowed the Bodleian to transcend the relatively parochial constraints of English scholarship. (While all scholars were welcome, however, they all had to swear the following oath: “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; nor to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.” I know this because I couldn’t resist buying the tea towel with the oath printed on it.)

3)      He ordained that no books were to leave the building. No borrowing of books or materials, period.  This policy is in place to this day for the majority of the collection.

I find this last policy fascinating, because in the early days of my library’s resurrection, we faced a critical decision: invest in the (rather expensive) software that would allow us to circulate books or just house the collection for patrons to view in the library. A very sage and experienced librarian decided the point by declaring that if books and materials didn’t circulate, we would have a reading room, not a proper library. If we agree with that definition (and I do), the the Bodleian, one of the most famous libraries in the world, is technically a reading room.

Even King Charles I, facing a mutinous parliament in London and escaping to the relative security of Oxford in 1642, was denied borrowing privileges at the Bodleian (though in order to appease His Majesty, the librarians had a little stall built inside Duke Humfrey’s Library so the King could taste the fruits of scholarship in privacy). By the doctrine of the divine right of kings, this was the man who was, in Shakespeare’s words, “the figure of God’s majesty/His captain, steward, deputy-elect,” and yet even he was denied check-out privileges.

After my tour of the Bodleian, marveling at the majesty of most influential books and manuscripts in history, I stopped by a pub (as I am wont to do). It occurred to me, as I re-acclimated to the noise and smell and colors of everyday life, that the American library tradition–begun by Benjamin Franklin and brought to fruition by Andrew Carnegie and countless American communities–of enabling every citizen to have free and unfettered access to information is one of the most radical movements in history.

In Oxford, at the Bodleian, I could gaze at magnificent books chained to the shelves, marvel at the scholarship contained in the august buildings, and admire the history of the furniture, the paintings, the architecture.  But in little Grants Pass, Oregon, I could walk into my community’s library and check out almost any book in the building.

In this, I am richer than kings.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized