A couple of weeks ago, after reviewing one of my posts, my editor commented that I was repeating myself because I had already written on the same topic in an earlier post. I feel that is inevitable in a weekly blog which has an archive of more than three hundred posts – I am just not sufficiently creative to produce something original every week. Besides, maybe that’s not necessary. Anyhow, today I am returning to a theme that I have written about previously: the Treasury at the Weston Library in Oxford. It is a small museum with a rotating collection of treasures from the Bodleian Library, which until the end of February 2019 is on the topic of ‘Sappho to Suffrage: women who dared‘. As you might expect from the title, the oldest treasure in the exhibition are fragments of a copy from the 2nd century AD of one of Sappho’s poems. Sappho, who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos between 630 and 580 BC, is the first female writer known to Western civilisation. Her work was almost lost – the fragments of papyrus on display were found on an ancient Eygptian rubbish dump. Perhaps this is a good representation of men’s attitude to women’s writing because probably since Sappho, female writers have been neglected by publishers and male readers. As Nilanjana Roy has reported, publishing houses submit more books by male writers for literary prizes and book reviews tend to highlight more books by men than by women. In books written by women the gender of characters in evenly divided, whereas in those written by men, women only occupy between a quarter and third of the character-space and men tend to read books written by men. Perhaps it is unsurprising that many men are lacking in understanding and social awareness of half the population. Encouraged by my wife and daughters, this imbalance in my reading habits is being addressed by reading the books shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction each year during our summer holidays. I can recommend the 2018 winner ‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie – it’s very topical, will make you think and pulls you along to its dramatic final page. However, you should also read ‘When I hit you’ by Meena Kandasamy – it was both enlightening and shocking to me, and I was left wondering about the line between fiction and non-fiction. I also really enjoyed last year’s winner: ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman.
In an echo of Henry Thoreau’s retreat to the woods around Walden pond, Sylvain Tesson escaped the ugliness of modern life and spent six months in a log cabin on the shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia. He wanted to surround himself with silence in the wilderness. He kept a diary ‘as a supplement to memory, to stave off forgetting’. He describes how the act of writing ‘makes life fruitful’; how ‘the daily appointment with the blank page forces one … to listen harder, to think more clearly, to see more intently’. I have similar feelings about writing a weekly post for this blog and being faced with a blank screen each week. Sometimes it is a joy to order my thoughts and commit some of them to writing; other times it is a chore and a challenge to dream up something vaguely interesting to tell you.
BTW Teeson’s book was a pleasure to read and easier than Thoreau’s in my view.
Few weeks ago I mentioned about reading undergraduate dissertations [see my post entitled ‘A Startling Result‘ on May 18th, 2016] and about a year ago I wrote about the low quality of prose produced by engineers [see my post entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader‘ on April 15th, 2015 ]. Coleridge described prose as words in the best order and poetry as the best words in the best order. So today I’d like to direct you to a poem entitled ‘Entropy‘ by Neil Rollinson from his anthology ‘Spanish Fly’. Here are a few lines from it:
“I open the window, the sky is dark
and the house is also cooling, the garden,
the summer lawn, all of it finding an equilibrium.”
I came across it while reading an anthology called ‘A Quark for Mister Mark: 101 Poems about Science‘ edited by Maurice Riordan and Jon Turney. I was dipping into it while enjoying a pint in our backyard after a personal battle with entropy: painting rusting railings in our yard.
A few weeks ago we visited the Marks of Genius exhibition in the recently refurbished Weston Library which is part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is a remarkable exhibition with an overwhelming collection of riches in terms of manuscripts and rare books. You might expect to see a copy of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton. But one of the items that bowled me over was the original manuscript of ‘An Essay on Criticism’ written in Alexander Pope’s own hand and used by the printer to prepare the first edition in 1711. It was open at the first page and you could see Pope’s annotations and corrections. Pope instructed the printer to put the following lines at the top of the second page:
Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own
I think he would be astonished at our ability today, not only to believe but, to publish our judgments in blogs. We might have the technology to synchronise our time-keeping devices, whether they are watches or smart phones, but there is still a huge diversity of opinions.
The other item in the exhibition that fascinated me was an unpublished manuscript by Jane Austen of a novel called ‘The Watsons‘. It is tempting to think that the prose written by great authors flows effortlessly onto the page. However, this was clearly not the case for Jane Austen as can be seen from the many crossings out and insertions in this handwritten manuscript. It should perhaps encourage my students who frequently have reports and manuscripts returned to them containing a similar level of my deletions and additions [see my post entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader‘ on April 15th, 2015].
The Bodleian Library has digitised the entire exhibition so you can see exactly what I have written about above by following the links to their website: