One of the best things about being an independent scholar (whatever that term means) is that my enthusiasms are no longer policed by the academy.
Note: Which is not to say that academics are unenthusiastic about their topics. It’s a truism that academics have a proprietary relationship–well, really, they fall in love with–the subjects of their research. One need only go to an academic conference and watch people unabashedly nerding out about Chaucer or planetary rovers or chaos theory to know that’s true.
No, this is all a very long way of talking about how I saw some of John Dee’s books—and the doodles, notes, and marginalia within—and am unconstrained in saying that it was pretty freaking magical.
The circumstances that led up to my sitting in the reading room of the Royal College of Physicians, quietly waiting to pay my respects to Dee’s books, were a perfect example of the kind of generosity of spirit and collegiality among many academics on Twitter. I had heard that the Royal College of Physicians would be doing an exhibit on John Dee, the 16th-century magus and mathematician who is widely thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero (Scholar, courtier, magician: The lost library of John Dee). Unfortunately for me, the exhibit was ending in late July, and I wouldn’t be in England until late August. I was sure I would miss this chance of a lifetime. I bemoaned my luck on Twitter, tweeting out “Oh, to be in England, while John Dee is there…”
Within a day I was thrilled to have a response from R. Satterley (@rsatterley), tagging the curator of the exhibit, Katie Birkwood. Katie generously offered to show me some of the highlights of the exhibit when I was in London, a month after the official end of the show. Katie spent almost an hour with me, and we talked about a wide and fascinating array of topics: how the books were stolen from Dee’s library and found their way to the Royal College of Physicians; Dee’s wife, Jane Dee, and what her life might have been like (in a word–odd); and Dee’s mathematical interests and drive to codify and record everything from the weather to his wife’s menstrual periods. Katie was so very kind and immensely knowledgeable. Thanks, Katie! <waves>
The first thing Katie showed me was, she said, one of her favorite parts of the exhibition: a doodle Dee had drawn (probably in 1545 when he was a student at Cambridge, as Katie notes in the video below starting around 2:40). It was found in a compendium of Cicero’s work’s, tucked in a corner by a poem about the “foaming, frothing seas.” The drawing is of a ship that seems almost to glide off the page, the perspective foreshortened in such a way that it floats toward the viewer. I had viewed the digitized image before my trip, but seeing it in person had a much more visceral effect. I was embarrassed to say this to Katie, fearing it would be too fanciful, but it reminded me very much of the scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, in which Eustace, Lucy, and Edmund stare at a painting of a ship rolling on the sea, staring gape-mouthed as it materializes in front of them until they are drawn into the cold, salty ocean.
That idea—of a picture, a doodle, a painting that manifests itself in person, that jumps the dimension between concept and object, the materiality of that idea—captured my imagination. I started thinking about the differences in seeing a picture of an object and the object itself. Why did it seem different, somehow, to experience these books in person rather than to view them on my computer, 7,000 miles away? Do we know, at some deep, molecular level, that we are in the presence of the thing itself? Does that materiality connect us more intimately than an image separated by distance and time? Is it all in our imagination, and if so, is that any less real?
I’m reminded of one of the best stories I’ll ever be able to tell in my life.
Five years ago, the magnificent Ursula K. Le Guin came to my local library with photographer Roger Dorband to talk about their book Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country. At dinner after the presentation, the table talk drifted to how, let’s be honest, there’s something a little weird about wanting an author’s signature on a book. As Le Guin put it (paraphrasing here), “I’m happy to do it, of course, but I do think sometimes, ‘I’ve just given you my words—thousands of them!’” We talked about how the signature seemed like a material proof of connection, of experience. My husband nodded sagely and said, “Hmmm, maybe you could just lick the book instead?” (For the record: Le Guin laughed and laughed, and when it came time to leave, she gave my husband a little pretend air lick.)
It was all great fun, but really, I think there’s something there.
At the risk of sounding as esoteric as Dee, I think books and writing retain some residue of the people they’ve encountered. “Books speak to us,” we say, and sometimes I wonder if we’re being strictly metaphorical. Why else do we run our fingers over their spines, trace the lettering on their backs and covers, flip through pages as though visiting an old friend? There’s something profound about the physical manifestation of our most cherished ideas, thoughts, experiments, and emotions made solid and shared, a way for people to connect across time and space through the simple touch of a pen to paper.
Or you know what? Maybe this is just a flight of fancy of my own. Maybe this deep sense of connection we feel when seeing somebody’s actual writing, or doodling, or jotting of notes, the joy and connection people find when an author has signed their book, is all in our imaginations. But I ask you: If so, does that make it any less magical?