Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Kept Secrets of London

From the dark and creepy halls of the Tower, to the stately Georgian rows of Kensington, to the glitz and glamour of Piccadilly (by the way, can you think of a word that is more fun to say in the English language than Piccadilly?), I love London.

And as a self-proclaimed anglophile, I have spent a lifetime worshipping the English culture. So when I’m walking the streets of London, I can’t help but harken back to those pages of the history books when Lords and Ladies held court; decisive battles were fought; heads were cut off. The world of Shakespeare comes to life; thee’s and thou’s cascading embarrassingly from my lips. And Dickens, my beloved Dickens, comes to me. I see street urchins picking the pockets of unsuspecting marks; brightly dressed young men busy in their studies; and old misers rushing on their way to work. If these shadows remain unaltered…

We all know the names and stories. And I think it’s becoming very clear to all of you just how much of a closet geek I truly am. And so it is only with great trepidation that I reveal one of my innermost secrets, my guiltiest pleasure when I visit London. Read no further if you want to maintain yourself as cool and indifferent.

Among all the museums, landmarks, stages, and pubs, my favorite place of all in London is the British Library. Yes, the Library. Stacks and stacks of books lining shelves holding the world’s knowledge; the aroma of moldy pages mingled with dust; the profound reverence of the quiet.

My first visit to this pantheon of geekness was at the suggestion of my husband, a self-proclaimed geek who accepted himself years ago. He has a thing for maps (he collects them, studies them, and can read any map of any place and immediately make it his own). So when he found out that the British Library has an extensive collection of ancient maps, many of them by the “big names” of mapmaking that only he and a few others would even recognize, he asked if we could spend a morning there. It was only going to be an hour or so and then we could move on to something else, he assured me.

Off to the Library we went, and at the top of the stairs we came to the map exhibit which had my husband in a trance and me mildly curious. But as I left him in his ecstasy to venture further, I came to another area of the exhibit that called to me: cases and cases of rare books on display from every possible place and time in history.

The first area I came to was a collection of ancient religious texts from something ridiculous like 3 minutes after the death of Christ, some of them in Aramaic. I walked back to my husband and told him: “You know they have fragments of text in Aramaic? You gotta come see this.” My husband is also a lover of linguistics (I told you he was a geek) and so this actually got him away from the maps.

We went through, piece by piece, as the gospels evolved into beautifully illuminated medieval Bibles with ornate decorations surrounding figures of people, animals, and sometimes combinations of both, making it more like an art gallery than a library.

The next area was filled with some of the earliest known written materials from all over the world: scrolls, papyrus, animal skins, and silk. And then, we reached the history section; this was the one that got me. The Magna Carta wasn’t good enough. They had to show off with the document that pre-dated and influenced the Magna Carta, as well as the document signed by the Pope saying the Magna Carta was invalid. We stood there dumbfounded, taking in the ancient writing, the humongous wax seals, the utter magnitude of the thing (or should I say magna magnitude?). It went on and on: laws and documents signed and sealed by Kings; letters signed by Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. Then on to the science section with the big three: Galileo’s earliest writings, notebooks, and publications; Newton’s books and letters, Darwin’s notes. As I went through, something dawned on me, and I turned to my husband and asked, “You know, with such an extensive collection, wouldn’t you think they’d have a Guttenberg Bible?” And next up, in the very next case: a Guttenberg Bible. Of course they had it.

I was already in heaven. And then, we hit it: the area that brought me to my literary knees. The first Shakespeare Folio was sitting right there among documents signed by the Bard himself. Just on the other side of the glass, I could almost touch it. Be still my heart. Then on to the Dickens case with first editions of everything: Great Expectations with the original ending and with the revised ending, the first Christmas Carol. If I could own a first edition anything, it would be A Christmas Carol. Writings by the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and every other great English writer imaginable were there. I wanted a cozy chair, a sunlit window, and hours to read.

And just in case you thought the English were stuffy and had no sense of the modern world, an entire case was dedicated to the Beatles: lyrics to the most recognizable songs in the world were right there written on scraps of paper. There were doodles by John Lennon, letters, autographs, and every other possible piece that could be connected to the Fab Four.

We went to the British Library in the morning daylight with the intention of spending an hour or so. We didn’t so much leave as emerge, eight hours later, in the dark of night, like Moses coming down from the mountaintop after seeing God, light radiating from our faces. We could not believe the scope and sheer vastness of their collections, with something for everybody on any possible subject.

It is now my favorite place in London, and mostly undiscovered, as most tourists will go to the other, better-known collections in the city. And although I visited it years ago, that day still sticks in my mind; so much so that I built an entire tour around it so that others could visit the great libraries of England. On your next visit to London, you might want to give it a try, but be warned, this is such stuff as dreams are made on, and you might not want to leave.

Renaissance Journeys is offering a Great Libraries of England Tour this Fall. For more information, please email:

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