Last week I had the privilege of reading some extraordinary writing.
My PhD involves literature from the 1800s, and so I often find myself in the obscure parts of the library whenever I visit. But last Thursday I went to the ‘special collections’ section – that little-known and little-seen area located in the basement of my uni library.
As I descended the stairs, the smell of books got stronger. The dust started to make me sneeze. I put my bag in one of the lockers provided at the door, realised I didn’t have £1 to lock it and so, trusting that thieves wouldn’t think to go to the ‘special collections’ section, I continued into the room. Before I got there though, I saw a sign informing me that only paper, pencils and laptops were allowed. I haven’t carried a pencil in my bag since I was 11, and I’m more of a note-scribbler than a typer, so I proceeded into the rare books section armed with only a notebook.
After a touch of confusion with the man in charge (who let me borrow a pencil), I found out how to find the books – fill in a piece of paper for each book, he disappears, and then reappears with the requested books. I sat down at the table to begin my day of reading.
Hours later, with tears still streaming down my face, I left with the feeling of privilege.
All day I had been reading diaries and letters of people who were in an uncertain context, who were working because of conviction and integrity, and who were brutally honest with their writing. I had been reading words and pages that I doubt many have read. I had been reading glimpses of someone’s world, a world they’d scrawling in notebooks, not necessarily thinking that some emotional PhD student would one day be weeping over them. I read a wife’s description of her husband’s final hours on a boat to Mauritius. I read a lonely man’s lament after his wife died in Sierra Leone. I read a traveler’s sighs as he pondered over the potential futility of his work.
I have been reading for weeks, but only dry words and emotionless records. On Thurday I felt like I was reading people, lives. I read something almost tangible.
Perhaps it’s just the dust, perhaps it’s just the fact that the books are yellowed and fragile, but that day felt like my PhD might actually touch something precious.
What a privilege. Bring on more reading.