Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bits of Simple Paper

With the back of a gloved hand, I wiped away a crescent of fog from the taxi window and gazed up at the enigmatic old building rising solidly before me in the steel coloured sky. The British Museum. Home to more enchantment than the mind could fathom. Paying the driver, I joined the muffled throng ascending the stone steps and soon found myself inside. There, in the glowing cavernous room to my right, within ancient wooden cases with heavy glass tops, lay the wonders I had come to see.

Inside the first, lying there open, was a small notebook containing all the magical words that made up the novel, Jane Eyre, the very words written by Charlotte Bronte herself, in her very own tiny, perfect script. There it was, the book that I had read at the age of thirteen, under the blankets with a flashlight - the book that left me with an abiding thirst for all that literature could offer. I could scarcely breathe as I stared at this original manuscript. Then I noticed, over to the side of the room, a crowd was gathered around another case. Walking over slowly, I could see that inside rested the handwritten, iconic lyrics of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Words that defined a generation; words that had changed the culture. I stood a bit off to the side and watched as people of all nationalities approached these bits of simple paper with near reverence, some of them softly singing the songs to themselves in a melange of exotic accents. Tears stung my eyes as I witnessed the astounding power of the written word. Whether book, poem or lyric, when the very words that have been instrumental in shaping your life and your heart, words that have influenced the way in which you see the world or helped you find your way in it....when the original incarnation of those words is right before your very eyes, well... it is an overwhelming experience.

I think back often to that drizzly afternoon in the British Museum. I have never lost the awestruck feeling of gazing down at those wondrous written treasures. And these days, I have to confess, I fear for the written word. There does not seem to be a day that passes without reports of another newspaper switching over to online availability only, while I myself find it utterly impossible to imagine a morning without a pot of hot coffee and the Times spread out on the kitchen table. Now, I am no Luddite. I use technology almost as much as anyone, with the possible exception of a teenager. I find email a valuable tool for handling business and for staying in contact with people one might otherwise lose track of, and I am writing these words on a
blog, for goodness sake. But I do wonder what sort of legacy is being left and what sort of environment is being fashioned when so much of what is written and read exists only in the digital realm.

When I look into the eyes of Vincent Van Gogh as they stare out at me from one of his many haunting self-portraits, the experience is infinitely more powerful because I have read the moving letters that exist between the artist and his beloved brother, Theo. Indeed, the letters of E.B. White or C.S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf or Beatrix Potter are so inspiring, so enlightening, it grieves me to think of the scarcity of such correspondence in the current age. The love letters I have tied up with a velvet ribbon in the box under my bed? Somehow I cannot imagine retaining the same sweet fondness for a folder full of emails. And it seems, with the current text and tweet phenomenon, the infinite glory of the English language is constantly being whittled to an ever more insignificant series of nonsensical acronyms, dashes and dots.

I realize I am perilously close to the edge of a rant and I hasten to say that I am fresh out of answers. Perhaps the ship has sailed. But I for one shall go down swinging. And who knows, maybe one day I myself shall be in a museum, sitting upright in a mahogany display case with a hat on my head.

No doubt my label shall declare me to be ...
The Last Surviving Letter Writing, Newspaper Subscribing, Hardback Reading,
Old Crank on the Planet!

Painting: Self-Portrait With Straw Hat, 1887 by Vincent van Gogh