Thursday, 18 December 2008

The holiest

I have always declared that I am a literature person, not a book person. And especially not a manuscript person. I have never understood the awe of looking at or even holding an original manuscript of a favourite book or a famous book or any book. A manuscript is just a bundle of paper.

I know this is a very immature way of thinking.

I once visited a famous children's literature archive, simply because they invited me to give a talk. I had out of politeness to show some interest and asked to see the file of an author I was just then working on. It was illuminating. But not my cup of tea.

It so happened that I today had a chance to see the original manuscript of Winnie-the-Pooh, which is the best book ever written. It is one of the treasures of the Wren Library of Trinity College, and my friends here, who know my passion for Pooh have repeatedly inquired how many times I have seen it yet. I would have gone to see it at some point, just to satisfy them. But it so happened. (OK, I'll brag: I was interviewed for BBC about Pooh in Russia. The rustle of old manuscript pages makes a tremendous effect in a radio programme).

I prepared to fake admiration, but when the custodian opened the case, I felt something very much like awe. Or was it curiosity? The manuscript does not open the way the printed version does, and it set it rolling. What other secrets does the manuscript hide? Piglet has a different name. Some bits are deleted, some additions scribbled in the margins. Does it matter? Can it change my understanding of the text? I am not particularly interested in authors' lives either. I don't tremble at the mere thought that the godlike Mr Milne once held this piece of paper. Yet there is something that touches my heart while the librarian slowly turns the pages. The magic of ink on yellowish ragged paper? The curlicues, the gaps between lines, large margins, indents. The text is no longer just a text, it becomes a work of art, a visual image, a material object. Like seeing an original painting rather than a postcard. I want to spend a long time studying each page, each paragraph, for purely aesthetical enjoyment.

I am afraid I will have to go back to the Wren library. Maybe more than once.

1 comment:

Anna said...

Was there, done that in September.

I was more thrilled to see "Winnie the Pooh" that The First Folio.

My daughter thought me very immature.