The Element That Stands Beyond the Critical Eye (Reflections on the British Library Treasures Room)

In being taught how to read a text critically, the student learns how to see beyond what is presented on the page. That is, they may read the sentences that are written in black and white, but they will see the colour of socio-economic-historical contexts that frame the work in a time and place. Such a practice has a twofold benefit: the first is that it illuminates the text to show what treasures are nestled within; and the second is like it, that it illuminates the time and place in which the authors of those works lived and worked. This dual illumination stretches the imagination of the reader backwards and forwards, seeing the arc of change that has occurred over the years, and it is the literary critic who sets out to enable those changes to become more clearly recognised. The illumination of the past is that history is not always told as it should be, and the authors of the time help to bring true history to us, the illumination of the future is that we can see what the future may look like under the same arc, and these illuminate the present so that we recognise that we live in a moment of influence. That things were what they were is one thing, but things do not have to become what they appear to be heading towards. The track of our society can be given a junction to enable it to move in a new and better direction. 

Yet for all that literary criticism does, there is an element of textual creation and engagement that stands alone — an element which illuminates the space around it in a completely unique manner. The element is noticeable whenever it is encountered, and undeniable to those who have experienced it. Such an element is readily available to see in places where old and precious books are displayed. One such place is the British Library, which displays works of great thinkers and creators from years gone by. There a visitor can see the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, handwritten lyrics by John Lennon, manuscript paper of Mozart and the sketches of Da Vinci. These and more are housed in a gallery named ‘Treasures of the British Library’, which is as apt a name as could possibly be given to such a gallery.

As with all old books and manuscripts, the room has to be kept quite dim. The lights are not garish and brutal, but soft in a way that enables them to display the cases without causing too much damage to the things contained therein. Yet even for the room being in semi-darkness, there is an undeniable light that seems to shine from the very essence of the room, and which has a quality of staying with the one who views those works. The quality, or the element as it may also be called, is a difficult one to describe. It is a curious blend of these works being defining moments in the history of literature, the ways in which they have been crafted and the finality of them that makes them so appealing. That Austen sat down and wrote books that are still read two hundred years later, the original, neatly handwritten pages of which are shown clearly in a case, and that she will not write another ever again, cause an illumination to come to the text that cannot be emulated in any other fashion. Perhaps this is what Walter Benjamin meant when he spoke against reproduction of art. There is something more brilliant about seeing the original workmanship than could ever be attained by cratefuls of printed editions of those same books. The grandeur is not in the number of copies of the texts, but rather in the entirety of that person’s work and craft being contained by pen and ink on a handful of pages, and the enduring effects that those scribbles had. Though publishers will always seek sales, mere numbers hold no sway over the power of the original manuscript. Though literary criticism may help to bring context and understanding to a text, it stands separate from what the text in its own original manifestation can bring. 

All this to say that when the Staffs Uni English students visited that room earlier this year, it was a sunny day. We exited the building, but there was a difference. On any other occasion, when exiting a building into sunlight, there is a point where the building appears very dark as the internal light pales in comparison to the brightness of the sun. Ordinarily, the dark building and the things within it are left behind as the person enters into glorious sunlight. But on this occasion the difference was that the building did not become dark. For behind us light was shining from the ‘Treasures’ gallery. And in some way, we didn’t leave that building and the things inside it behind, but we have taken it with us.

Tim Lucas (2nd Year English and Creative Writing)