Sunday, November 4, 2012

Surprised by Joy

The Dreaming Spires

I’ve been living in Oxford for over two months now—the land of ‘dreaming spires’ and ‘last enchantments’ … it really is like living in a fairy tale.
But the last few weeks have been jam packed with learning, learning, learning. I just finished my 4th week of “full term”. In four weeks I attended 18 lectures, read 9 novels and countless amounts of literary criticism, and wrote 6 papers. It was a busy month. But I’ve been getting to learn and read and write about wonderful, wonderful things. 

One of the first books that I read while I was here was C.S. Lewis’s autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. For those Lewis fans out there who have not read it, go to your local library right now (or download it onto the technological device of your choice…and I will try not to judge you). And if you have never read anything by C.S. Lewis, shame be upon you and your entire household. Okay, okay…I am only joking. But this guy really is pretty amazing. I can’t believe that I get to study his literature in the place where he spent so much of his life! 

Here is a little excerpt from Surprised by Joy for your reading pleasure:

 My first taste of Oxford was comical enough. I had made no arrangements about quarters and, having no more luggage than I could carry in my hand, I sallied out of the railway station on foot to find either a lodging-house or a cheap hotel; all agog for ‘dreaming spires’ and ‘last enchantments’. My first disappointment at what I saw could be dealt with. Towns always show their worst face to the railway. But as I walked on and on I became more bewildered. Could this succession of mean shops really be Oxford? But I still went on, always expecting the next turn to reveal the beauties, and reflecting that it was a much larger town than I had been led to suppose. Only when it became obvious that there was very little town left ahead of me, that I was in fact getting to open country, did I turn around and look. There, behind me, far away, never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers. I had come out the station on the wrong side and been all this time walking into what was even then the mean and sprawling suburb of Botley. I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life.

I don’t necessarily feel like I have been walking in the wrong direction for my whole life. But at certain points, I have found myself settling for the sprawling suburbs without even realizing it:
When I was preparing to come to Oxford, when I stepped off the train and started the mile walk to my lodgings (with much more luggage than Clive), I was not thinking at all about the people that I would meet here. I came here with my focus on many things; people wasn't one of them. Fortunately, God had something better for me than just the suburbs I was heading for. He had relationship for me--relationships that I would learn from, or that I would teach in, relationships that frustrate, relationships that lift up, relationships that challenge my thinking, relationships that inspire me to laugh and to dance. 
Cat haikus to bring us smiles during a hard study session.
I figured I would make a couple friends in Oxford, but I was not at all prepared for the abundance of family that God has provided for me here. The last few weeks have been so precious to me, not just because I am developing a deeper appreciation for the amazing city of dreaming spires that surrounds me, but because I am developing a deeper appreciation for the amazing people that surround me. There is depth and complexity in each of these beautiful people that I get to share my life with.  God has blessed me so much more than I had ever imagined. I get to study things that I love in one of the most beautiful places in the world with some of the most beautiful people I have ever met! He had a deeper, more enchanting plan for me that was not at all what I expected when I first got off that train two months ago. I was indeed surprised by the amount of joy and love that has found me here.

some of my lovely friends during our Sunday "family time"

Saturday, September 22, 2012

If I Made a Horror Film In a Library...

The Gladstone Link

So I’ve told you about the Old Bodleian library. Well it happens to be right next to one of the most famous buildings in Oxford: the Radcliffe Camera. Guess what…the Radcliffe is also a library. And it is also amazing! But the whole upper floor is currently shut down because books are being moved around like crazy. It’s complicated. So I’ve decided to put off a blog post designated to that wonderful place for another time, when I can critique it to its fullest, truest, most glorious extent…so hold tight, okay guys. 

Anyway, the point is, these two libraries (the Old Bodleian and the Radcliffe Camera) are very close together and they both use the same system, so these smart library people decided that it would be convenient to just connect the two. So get this: there was this old sewer system underneath the city, see. So they thought: why not just transform one of those sewage lines into an underground library…The Gladstone Link. 

Mr. Gladstone (or Mrs. I won’t be discriminatory), whoever you are, you are both genius and mad, my friend. 

They constructed this long, space-age tunnel that connects the two main buildings. It all feels very…sci-fi. Everything is electronic, you swipe your card to get access, an automatic door lets you through, you walk through a tunnel encased with glass and metal.

“I feel like I’m in Star Wars every time”–Colin L.

My fellow student provides a very appropriate description, I would say. This Star Wars-esque space tunnel feels so out of place knowing how ancient everything is above us.

But besides the tunnel, there are also two-stories worth of books held underground in the Gladstone Link. They generally keep the most recent editions of books in this particular section of the library, so for us Oxford researchers, this is a crucial place. Basically, the first day that I ventured into the Gladstone Link was the first day that the rest of the Americans from my program also decided to brave their way through. 

None of us really knew what we were doing, including myself. The categorization system was nothing like what I am used to, and the way that they broke the sections up in this underground labyrinth still makes no sense. How I ever found M04.E12594, I have no idea. Sheer luck, I think.

But that’s not all. How the shelves worked is the oddest part. You know how in a typical library the shelves are all in neat rows, in order, with plenty of space in between the rows to saunter down and calmly peruse the stacks? Not so here. Here the shelves are in clusters all facing each other in weird ways. But here’s the really tricky part, each cluster of shelves (say ten or so) is not separated by nice, luxurious walking spaces. No, they are all squished right up against each other. (See picture). Once you’ve found the row that you need, you have to crank a wheel that shifts all the shelves over, creating a space for you to squeeze through and desperately try to find your book before you suffocate. But you have to make sure that there is no one in the row that currently has the empty space before you start cranking the shelves to create your own space or else you will squish the person in that row. It is quite complicated, and also really intense. 

Imagine standing in your makeshift row, looking at a book, trying to determine if it is the one you need, when all of the sudden, the walls of books literally start closing in around you. The rows are too long and you are too deep in to ever escape in time. Your fellow library patrons have no idea that death is imminently approaching. You try to let out a plea for help but the anxiety coupled with the lack of fresh air is suffocating.  And so…you die. 

Dramatic? Perhaps.  But these shelves really were odd.

“Library Death Traps.” –Felicia
“Riiight? What if you pull it back and there is a dead person in there?  Freaky.”–Hannah Z.

Now I will always wonder, and perhaps cringe every time I crank the wheel.

Also, because you are underground, and this is all relatively new, sometimes the lights will flicker on and off when you are looking for books in the scary stacks. It really intensifies the process. I had no idea what I was doing when I first came in to look for the books, so already my anxiety was keen. The “M”s were split between the floors in no apparent order or sense. M11-12 were upstairs while M96-10 were down, or some such nonsense. History was up and history was down English was up and down or sidewise theology was missing entirely philosophy was there but no one seemed to know where up and down up and down lights flickering around oops someone squished an old lady up and down and up left the right shelf nowhurryandfindit before something rolls on top of you is it the right one left left up to the next book underground underground underground and up and down until no one knows where they are at all anymore and we’re just wandering around aimlessly tiredly without any signs of scholastic success in our arms or bags lights flickering on and off and up and down we go againandagain trying not to squish each other in the process. us Americans were a sorry lot.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The British Landscape

Great Britain has some wonderful things to offer: its quaint towns and rolling hills, its overabundance of tea-drinking, its delectable chocolates, jams, and clotted creams… but most importantly, its authors. Ah, British authors! How I love them.

The British landscape is chalk-full of these wonders. 

photo credit: La Bibliotheque-

As part of my time here in England, I have to actually do school (sometimes I forget).  Between exploring libraries, making friends, and drinking lots and lots of tea, I must somehow also find time to read. And when I say read, I mean reeead. Fortunately, I will be reading some truly amazing things.  Often I think about my reading list with much excitement and a moderate amount of fear. If you are interested to see what I’m talking about, check out the list below:

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners – John Bunyan
Surprised by Joy – C.S. Lewis
The Book of Margery Kempe – Margery Kempe
The Journal of George Fox – George Fox
The Witch of Edmonton – Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley
Macbeth – William Shakespeare
The Witch – Thomas Middleton
Phantastes George MacDonald
Lilith – George MacDonald
“On Faerie Stories” – essay by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Chronicles of Narnia (all seven) – C.S. Lewis
“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” – an essay by C.S. Lewis
“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said” – an essay by C.S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet – C.S. Lewis
Perelandra – C.S. Lewis
That Hideous Strength – C.S. Lewis
A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis
The Four Loves – C.S. Lewis
“Cupid and Psyche” – Apuleius
Ode to Psyche – John Keats
Evelina – Frances Burney
Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Emma – Jane Austen
The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe
Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen
Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
Persuasion – Jane Austen

So far, I have finished 3. 

So you may be extremely jealous or simply relieved that you are NOT me. Even I have mixed feelings about it, so don’t worry, it’s normal. 

But I am excited for what’s ahead…and also not just a little bit nervous. 

In fact, I just submitted my very first Oxford essay to be graded. Oh dear, it is so nerve-wracking! Prayers are appreciated.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

If I Could Bottle a Scent...

The Old Bodleian

The Bodleian Library

So, I am officially living in Oxford! And it is a bit like living in a dream. In fact, I feel like there is so much beauty to behold, that I am currently in a state of sensory overload. I cannot even really take it all in yet! Everything is so old and beautiful and quaint. And almost every single building is that way! It’s incredible…almost too much! 

One such building is the Bodleian Library…

Saying that I have seen the Bodleian is a bit like saying that I have seen America. The Bodleian is actually a network of 50 different libraries all throughout Oxford. I certainly have not seen them all. But the Old Bodleian (the original building) is right in the center of town…and I have seen it in all its splendor. 

The Bodleian is the second largest library in England (next to the British Library). But is it second best? No sir. I would say that its 11 million volumes is large enough for me. 11 million! Sheesh! Anyway, although the Bodleian does not have the original manuscripts of Jane Austen (etc.), its charms are still irresistible. 

The Old Bodleian building contains many amazing resources. The three main sections are the Lower Reading Room, which contains books about Theology, Philosophy, Classics, etc. And the Upper Reading Room which has History and Literature (love this room!) These reading rooms embody the type of thing that you would imagine when you think of a dusty, old library. Tall wooden shelves (you need a ladder to get to the top ones), rows of long desks, charming card catalogues (not necessarily used anymore).  Plus, the truly ancient art and architecture all around makes everything…special. I sat there, reading these special books, in this special room, that I have special access to as an Oxford student…thinking to myself: Lord, you are so good to me.

There was a strict "no photography" policy. oops.
But today I ventured into the third main part of this building… Duke Humfrey’s Library. This is the place where they keep the special collections and the truly, truly ancient volumes. I thought that it would be similar to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery in the British Library (which I told you about in my last post), where they keep all of their ancient, famous volumes…all on display under boxes of glass in a dark, modern room with people passing to and fro as if they were in a museum. The thing that I love about the Bodleian is that this is not a museum (despite all of the jokes about libraries heading that way). The Bodleian is used, the special collections and the ancient volumes are used.  

Duke Humfrey’s Library is not at all like a museum…but more like…a fairytale.

I'm only slightly happy to be here!
When I walked into Duke Humfrey’s Library, my jaw actually dropped. And for a while I just stood there, mouth agape but with a little hint of a smile, taking in the sight before me. Do you remember the library from Beauty and the Beast? Well, I felt like Beauty in that moment. Two stories of old, dusty books lining all of the walls...stairs and ladders climbing, ornate paintings hanging everywhere, and dazzling ceilings arching above it all. There is really nothing like it (not even the Beast’s library). As soon as I was able to close the gaping hole in my face, I eventually remembered to breath. And as I did, I took in the overwhelming scent of old books. You know what I’m talking about? That lovely old book smell that you get when you open the binding of a book that hasn’t been used in 50 years. Well the entire room was exuding this fantastic aroma. If I could bottle a scent, it would be this one. 

I have decided that I shall do all of my homework in this room. That way every time I breathe, I am happy. 
The ceilings!!