History / Literature Geek Goes to Mecca

I’m in London.  I’m there to see Macbeth at the Shakespeare’s Globe. However, every time that I go to London (I think this is the 4th time now), I make a point of going to the British Library. It always has been, and, I’m sure, always will be, a personally mind blowing experience.

For a person interested in words, letters, and history, you just can’t go wrong here.  On display, in a fairly small room, are the following (note, not an inclusive list):

  • A handwritten letter from Michelangelo to his nephew
  • A handwritten letter by T.S. Eliot, written while recovering from a mental breakdown, describing his struggles writing The Wasteland
  • A handwritten letter by Karl Marx
  • A handwritten letter by Guy Burgess, the famous British Soviet spy, written after he had escaped to Moscow, to a friend in England claiming partial credit for some of the policies in place in England
  • A handwritten evaluation of her nurses behavior during the Crimean War by Florence Nightingale
  • Lord Horatio Nelson’s last letter to his mistress

Holy crap! Somehow, looking at these letters, and realizing that they were written by these significant famous historical figures sends chills down my spine. Seeing the letters, in many cases essentially illegible, somehow makes these figures that I’ve read about truly human. It’s as if I can feel them standing next to me. I’ve been here many times and it’s almost a mystical experience for me.

As if that’s not enough, they have an entire wall for the musicians. Here, they have handwritten original scores from Mozart and Beethoven, among many others. They have a very rough staging direction of a scene of Madame Butterfly by Puccini. If you want something a little bit more current, there are handwritten Beatles songs by Lennon and McCartney.

As if that’s not enough (yet!), Hilary Mantel wrote two best selling novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, which are historical novels of the Henry VIII reign. Very briefly, it describes among many other things, Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine and marriage of Anne Boleyn, the rise and fall of Thomas More as his adviser, and the rise of Thomas Cromwell as his new adviser.

In homage to that (or more crassly, to capitalize on it), the library includes a letter jointly handwritten by Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Thomas Cromwell. Thomas More wrote Utopia. Included are multiple versions of his Utopia (eg the first edition, the first illustrated edition), as well as first editions of Utopian novels such as Brave New World and 1984.

As if that’s still not enough, there is a significant set of religious books. They have a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, which set off the printing revolution. They have a copy of a huge bible used in a church from the year 1000.  They have a copy of the Tyndall bible (one of three left, apparently). This is the first bible that was translated into English, for which crime Tyndall was executed (as in strangled and then burned at the stake). They also have numerous Korans, Hindu religious works, and others.

Still hungry for more? How about a copy of Beowulf from the fucking year 1000??

And to top it all off, they had a small special exhibition celebrating punk rock. I had just finished the punk rock history Please Kill Me. In it, they talked about how punk rock got its name from a magazine started at that same time named Punk. And there it is, under glass, the first edition of Punk, complete with a cartoon drawing of Lou Reed on the the cover.

I can pretty much guarantee you that if I ever go back to London, yes, I will make my pilgrimage here again.


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