British Museum
London/October 21-23, 1996

I'm wandering through the manuscript area of the British Museum, wrapped in the smell of old wood and aging paper. As I drift around, I see a manuscript in Sir Walter Ralegh's hand. It's a section of his notebook for the History of the World that he penned during the early years of his imprisonment in the Tower of London.

British Museum
The British Museum in London. I spent only a few hours there, but it would take weeks to explore if fully.

I want to reach out and touch the dry, frail pages of the notebook the same way I ran my hand over the coarse stone walls of his prison while I was visiting the Tower yesterday. I can barely discern what the words say, but there's something here that transcends language. It's been dogging me the entire time I've been in London, and this afternoon it's overwhelming.

I walk through a room that contains manuscripts from the Romantic poets ... Keats, Wordsworth. What do those pages encased in glass feel like? What ran through the poets' minds as they set pen to paper?

Then I stumble on a 1923-24 draft of Finnegan's Wake, written in Joyce's hand. His manic genius sizzles on the page. The words are in pencil, but there are countless Xs and strikethroughs. Some in pencil. Some in reddish-orange ink. It's not linear. Words overflow into the margins. I can't make much out at all. But I stand there in awe ... until I notice a crowd across the room.

I've been here a while, and I'm amazed to see a manuscript that actually has drawn a crowd. Even a copy of the Gutenberg Bible from 1455 -- one of only 51 copies extant -- didn't draw this kind of interest.

I amble over and try to see what all the fuss is about.

It's an exhibit of letters between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The crowd is gawking at a draft of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" in Paul's handwriting.

At first I'm a little appalled. This simple love song is commanding more attention than a series of Articles to the Barons that King John sealed at Runnymede in 1215. It was the foundation of the Magna Carta. McCartney's scribbling became a smash hit.

But suddenly I'm grinning. The breadth and scope of English literature comes into focus. How different, really, were Shakespeare and the Beatles? The Puritans weren't too impressed with the Globe Theatre, and even shut it down. The Beatles managed to rattle a few Christian cages, too ... Paul and John certainly weren't Shakespeares, but they were following in the tradition of the Bard, and of English literature at large.

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