Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Of Libraries

I spent last week wrestling with a bad cold, which kept me at home for a few days, feeling very sorry for myself and unable to do anything more strenuous than drink even more tea than usual and watch copious amounts of The Wire - to which I am a fairly late, but extremely enthusiastic, convert. I am into season 4 now and after having watched all 12 episodes of series 3 over a couple of days, I am trying to ration myself so I don't get through the last two seasons too quickly. This is proving difficult. I am also already faint with excitement at the idea of seeing Dominic West (aka McNulty) at the Donmar Warehouse this winter. Someone pass the smelling salts...


But I digress. Feeling much more myself now, I spent yesterday working at home, as I have also been doing this morning, but after lunch, Duke Humfrey beckons me to return to him. Duke Humfrey's is the rare books and manuscripts reading room of the Bodleian Library - the main library for the university. Duke Humfrey himself is long dead and buried, as one of the librarians recently had to explain to a phone caller - 'No, madam, I'm not actually Duke Humfrey...' - but his library lives on. It's a beautiful workspace, and although some of my friends complain that it is too dark and gloomy for their tastes, I find it atmospheric:


A lot of the material I have to consult for my research needs to be looked at here anyway, but even when I'm looking at more modern books, I tend to have them sent here, simply because I like it so much and find it a soothing and inspiring space to work. In truth, I am simply a sucker for anything old and pretty! By now, Duke H feels like something of a home from home: I am familiar with the librarians there, and the man on the gate who records people's entrances and exits is now able to greet me by name and write down the number on my university card (or Bod card, as it's generally known) from memory. This was a little unnerving at first, although not as unnerving as the moment when I was in M&S picking up some food, when I was pounced upon by one of the Duke H librarians. He told me that my books needed renewing and would I like him to do it for me when he got back? I accepted his offer gratefully, surprised but rather smug that I had been able to renew my books and buy my evening meal at the same time!

I recognise the other 'regulars' now, too, the ones who tramp up and down clutching sheafs of papers and muttering distractedly to themselves, or who sit staring intently at an old tome in complete silence - sometimes I wonder whether they've been there so long that they've forgotten to breathe - when suddenly they'll exclaim delightedly 'HA!!' and frantically scribble something down. These moments of ecstatic discovery never seem to happen to me, but seeing them occur to other people gives me some degree of hope! When I pause from my work, I sometimes find myself wondering who these people are, and what they're working on - are they historians or literary scholars, visitors from universities abroad or from just down the road? What is it that interests them so passionately, as they come day after day? What sort of people are they? Would I like them if we spoke together? Sometimes I can get quite carried away with this - I am terrible for constructing little imaginary histories for people I see - I do it in cafes too, trying to work out the relationships between people and wondering what their lives are like. People-watching in a cafe with a cup of coffee and something sweet is one of my favourite activities. It seems that my old friend Sir W was also inclined to make guesses about the people he encountered, although, as he describes here, sometimes it's better not to investigate whether the reality lives up to your imaginations! Today's extract comes from the essay 'Of Discourse', first published in 1600:

'In this time my eyes wandering to finde a handsome cause of Interruption, meete with a felow in blacke, backe again they come with their Intelligence and tel me they haue found a Scholler. I goe to this Vessell, and thirsting after some good licour, hastily pierce it, when there issueth medicines, or Lawe-tearmes: alas, it is either a Surgeon, or an Atturney, my expectation hath broken her neck. Well, these are places to grow fat in, not wise. Let vs trauell someplace else.'

8 comments:

Merenia said...

Dear Sophie,
Thank you for the library description. There is a great first novel with this library at the centre!
A further (frivolous but vital) comment: there is life before and after tasting Carluccio's Cioccolata Fiorentina, and Patisserie Valerie's cream donuts. They were two great pleasures when I lived in the UK.

Ewan said...

A fine blog you have here Sophie, though I have one suggestion: no mention of any fast food establishments in your sidebar? I am sure that Kebab Kid or Hassan's merits a write-up to stand proud alongside Le Manoir au Quat'Saisons!

Elsa said...

I was just about to mention Hassan's - I intend to scant his name in here until you actually write up a review about it. Hum...
Welcome to the blogosphere, you write beautifully but I'm sure you know that. You make me miss Oxford even more, I definitely procras... er, watch people in libraries as well - and I know what you mean about the weird looks when the sound of your heels reverberates everywhere :)
Miss you guys.

Sophie said...

Merenia: thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you enjoyed the mini tour of Duke H's. Yes, I think Oxford student life in generally is full of enough wackiness to form a good basis for my first novel, haha. I've never tried the cream doughnuts at Patisserie Valerie, but they sound good - thanks for the tip!

Ewan & Elsa: ha, all my attempts to cultivate a sophisticated image blown straight out of the water ;) Don't worry, I'll give Hassan a place of honour in my 'eat' list right away... And Elsa, thank you for all your nice words about the blog. I miss you too!

ramblingfancy said...

"People-watching in a cafe with a cup of coffee and something sweet is one of my favourite activities." Mine too! Lovely post Sophie, so glad you've started a blog!

Sophie said...

Thanks Donna! Haha yes, well, if we do all make it to Paris together next year I'm sure they'll be plenty of cafes and people-watching to be had there ;)

Ching said...

Ha, I love this! I usually inhabit the RSL if I work in an Oxford library- I love the desks they have up on Level 7, and Green's Cafe is across the road, not to mention the Eagle and Child! I'm just as obsessed with people- watching; airports are my favourite place to do it! Ching xx

Sophie said...

I must admit I've never ventured into the RSL! Always good to have refreshments within easy reach though ;) And yes, the opportunity to people-watch and spin stories is surely one of the few enjoyable things about being stuck in an airport! x