I’m In The British Library (And I Feel Fine)

Laura Stiers is a third year English major studying abroad in London this quarter. In Dispatches from London, she blogs about books, curious Anglicisms, and literary culture in one of Europe’s most literary cities.

Sylvia Plath has the handwriting of the girl who sat next to me in my eighth grade English class. Looking at the letter in the display case, with its rounded vowels and nicely spaced words, it’s so easy to imagine her writing with a pink gel pen. Doodling flowers in the margins of her notebook. SP ♥ TH.

Milton is no better with his scribbles and cross-outs. Lewis Carroll, worse still: Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is pen and paper, ink letters made by a flesh and blood hand. Where is my sense of awe and wonder? Why aren’t I holding my breath, made reverent by the presence of these literary relics?

Part of it might be that this is no longer the British Library, the Reading Room where Marx lurked in the corners and Virginia Woolf daydreamed in front of the card catalog. That building, which is part of the British Museum, has an exhibit about the Aztecs in it now. A part of me sorely regrets the loss, the same part of me that wishes it felt a little more giddy at the sight of a copy of the First Folio, and resents Sylvia Plath for having the handwriting of a fourteen-year-old girl. (A greater part of me grouses that the new British Library building looks like the product of an unholy union between Max Palevsky and the Regenstein, although this is probably less than relevant.)

But there’s another part of me, a part that thrills at the fact that these were people. Just people, mere mortals, no different than the people sitting next to me on the Tube every morning. It’s only the passage of time and the accumulation of generations of human admiration that has given them this golden glow of greatness, turned them into demigods in the eyes of an English major like myself. Or at least they were demigods, until I saw their handwriting. The words may be deathless, but their authors were just people with pens.

(On the other hand, seeing the original lyrics to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” scribbled on a scrap of paper sent me into full celebrity-worship mode. My knees may have trembled, a bit. Apologies to Sylvia, John, Charles, and Will, but I guess I’m really just a Paul girl at heart.)