Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rare Books and Manuscripts

Yesterday I finished my third of three books about books (you can see my thoughts on the first two here and here), titled simply, Books by Larry McMurtry. I was hoping it would be much like one of these recent reads, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee. Instead, it covered decades of McMurtry's life as book scout and seller of rare and valuable books. It was interesting enough, though he dropped only a few names I recognized and many, many I didn't. However, I really enjoyed hearing about all the rare books he's found over the years in basements, on bookshelves of both regular people and the rich and famous, and the ones he's sold himself and been paid a pretty penny for.

While I was in London, I, too, got a taste of rare books and manuscripts by visiting the British Library. This facility houses 14 million books, 920,000 magazines and journals, 58 million patents and three million sound recordings, according to their website, which you can visit here. I knew before I went that I'd see a Gutenberg Bible, several versions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and some other things. I wasn't prepared, though, for feeling overwhelmed by seeing so many world-changing works all housed in one place. It was so much that I knew I'd forget a lot of it, so I started jotting down notes while I was there. Here's a sampling of what I saw/heard:
  • A recording of James Joyce reading from Finnegan's Wake

  • Jane Austen's third volume of a journal she wrote from age 12 to 17 with writings composed for her family's enjoyment
  • Jane Austen's writing desk, given to her by her father. It was kind of like a lap desk that held supplies in compartments.
  • Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre manuscript
  • A notebook containing writings by Virginia Woolf that she used to write Mrs. Dalloway
  • Original sheet music by Handel for Messiah and the Wedding March he created for A Midsummer Night's Dream (which just so happens to be my favorite Shakespeare play, and the musical selection I chose to walk out of the church to with my new husband in 2007 at our wedding)
  • The beginnings of Beatles songs scribbled on napkins, paper scraps and other things that eventually became hit songs
  • Notebooks from Leonardo Da Vinci
  • The Magna Carta
  • A letter from Charles Darwin to a friend which became the basis for Origin of Species
  • A lecture draft written by Sigmund Freud
  • A version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dali
  • Shakespeare's first folio, which was open to Henry VI Part I
And that's just a sampling of all that is there and on display. It was truly amazing to see. Of course there's no picture taking on the inside, but here is the library from the outside:

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