I just returned from the British Library’s “Writing Britain” exhibition. The exhibition is a celebration of the country’s literary achievements stretching back nearly a thousand years, and includes books like the oldest surviving edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The exhibition is broken down into sections based on literary themes, such as the English adoration for the countryside or the discovery of literary value in the growth of urban industrial centers. In these sections are huge numbers of beautiful literary artifacts. There are dozen’s of original manuscripts from the Brontë sisters, Chaucer and even J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book. There are also huge numbers of very old editions. If you like really old paper, and the existence of the book as an object is important to you, then the exhibition is a real treat.
I was lured to the British Library by the posters in the Tube with a quote by J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Much to my frustration, the exhibition does not include any of Tolkien’s written work. Instead of an illegible hand written page out of a notebook or even a first edition copy of The Lord of the Rings, there is a painting done by Tolkien of the Shire. While impressive, the painting was not what I had hoped for. Tolkien is the writer that made me fall in love with speculative fiction. In third grade my teacher read The Hobbit to us for about thirty minutes a day, while we paged through his illustrated editions and drew our own representations of Smaug and the Lonely Mountain. When our time with The Hobbit was done, my Dad and I started on The Lord of the Rings, finishing just in time for the movies to come out.
It’s easy to forget that the stories that inspire us come from somewhere. The they come from someone. At one point in time, there was no Lord of the Rings, no Wuthering Heights, no Ser Gawain and the Green Knight. All those books and stories came from the imaginations of human beings who were inspired by the writers who came before them and though: I could add something to this. I know more titles of books than authors. I often feel awkward when people ask about what I’ve read of late, and I can tell them the title but haven’t got a clue who the author is. Seeing the original manuscript for a book really helps remind me of how little attention I pay to authors. What I read as a page of well wrought text was at one time the scribbling of pen on paper, almost all of which is crossed out as the author tries to shield me from their imperfection.
It’s interesting, and a little sad, that the writer will never be as important to the reader as the story. Because secretly writers just want to be remembered and cared about. If that weren’t true, I wouldn’t care if people read my work. But I want them to read it. Someday I want kids to think: I want to write like this, but better, when they read my work. I want them to fall in love with my stories and read them while drinking hot chocolate as it snows outside. I want them to be disappointed when they go to museum exhibitions and there isn’t actually a notebook written in by my hand.