This, my library card-carrying friends, is the first entry in the Great Libraries Folio.
What is the Great Libraries Folio? I’ll tell you.
It’s a book we’ll create together as we explore the great libraries of the past and present. I believe this is an apt endeavor for two reasons. In the first place, you must like libraries if you’re brave enough to come to a library full of dragons. And second, you seem the time-traveling type. Now, there are centuries’ worth of wandering aisles and musty shelves in our future, and there’s no way we have the energy to go tramping through them all at once—no matter how stout our hearts. Therefore, we must uncover each library’s secrets one at a time. That in mind, the first series of entries is going to record our exploration of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England.
Warning: As before mentioned, you’ll be required to time travel. So if you get motion sickness, I hear taking ginger really helps.
Okay, hold onto something.
Oxford, 1320. Edward II has split his kingdom into two opposing factions. Anarchy rules the court, the Scottish freely plunder northern England and the country is struggling through famine. Good time to start the first Oxford university library, right?
It’s amazing that reading and writing—such quiet, solitary activities—move through history no matter what’s going on around them, like a river that moves steadily on even though its banks are in endless turmoil. This very river was moving in 1320 at the little University Church of St. Mary the Virgin (whose steeple is pictured above). Twenty books were gathered up and deposited lovingly into a little room above the Old Congregation House to the north of the chancel. Food and safety were not sure things, but that didn’t matter to these twelfth-century clerks. They wanted a library, so they started a library. Okay, let’s shoot forward 619 years…
We’re standing in this same exact church where the small library began. As we take a seat in one of the squeaking, wooden pews, we hear the man in the pulpit say,
“If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.”
The speaker is C. S. Lewis and the date is October 22, 1939. Hitler invaded Poland just last month and England has declared war on Germany. Great time to study literature and physics, right? As we glance around at the worried faces, Lewis goes on to say,
“The war will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object and, therefore, intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul.”
It’s one of the undeniable truths you can count on: there will never be a good time to do anything that isn’t directly related to surviving. But that doesn’t stop us, does it? Humans are incapable of being fully utilitarian. You, dear adventurer, look for beauty no matter what. Curiosity constantly hums in the background of your life like your refrigerator. You ask—against all odds—questions about everything. You create—regardless of danger—to inspire yourself and others. Lewis seemed to think this had something to do with the vastness or longevity of the human soul. I definitely agree it’s a telltale sign of something weightier inside us than any present danger outside pressing in, as if dust were trying to crush a mountainside.
So our first entry into our Folio must be this: It’s never a good time to begin a Folio. But we’re human, so we’re going to.
For the next four Wednesdays, I’ll post about the Bodleian Library and why it’s worth the time-traveling sickness.
What do you think about all this? Also, do you have a secret wish to spend the night in a library or is that just me?
A couple treasures to add to your dragon’s hoard:
The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis (in which you’ll find the speech “Learning in War-Time” which was quoted above).