14 June 2016

Day Six: Oxford

For an academically minded person like myself, Oxford is the Holy Grail of cities.  This is a city with as many bookstores as coffee shops, and the book stores are excellent.  I have to remind myself that I can buy most of those books at home (and not have to haul them around in the mean time), but it's not an easy business.  Even with all that reminding I still made it out with two new books (which makes three so far that I've purchased on this trip.  Oops?) I bought a facsimile version of the first Alice in Wonderland and a blank journal that's been bound with the cover of an old book.  It's gorgeous.  I had to have it.  It'll take me at least a year before I get to writing anything in it (no thanks to all the digital writing I've been doing on this trip instead of traditional journaling), but I'm excited to have it.

Not only does Oxford have great bookstores, it has a wealth of information and history around virtually every corner.  The actual date of its founding is unknown, but there are records of teaching being done as far back sat 1096.  This makes Oxford the oldest English speaking University in the world and the second oldest University period.  Hundreds of recognizable names have graced the various colleges, from Oscar Wilde to Stephen Hawking, John Locke to CS Lewis - a total of 58 people who have been associated with Oxford either as students or professors have won the Nobel Prize, and representatives have come from each category of the Nobel Prize.  In Oxford you walk in the steps of some of the world's greatest thinkers.  I love it.

That doesn't mean I wish I could have gone to Oxford.  Aside from practicalities (room and board for a month alone costs about what a semester of tuition did for me at the Y after scholarships), I can only imagine how distracting it could be to live in a city so surrounded by tourists.  Furthermore, the pressure would be intense.  Consider, for example, that the house where JRR Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings is still rented by students.  I think I'd wake up every morning and be intimidated by all the great things I wasn't doing.  You also have to take exams in official robes.  (Actually. . .I would totally be down with that.  I love tradition and snooty official things like that.)

We mostly just meandered the city today, peeking in on places that looked worth a visit interspersed with going places I knew I wanted to go.  We visited the Sheldonian Theatre (not really worth it) and the church of Saint Mary the Virgin (worth it).  I also got to see the Bodleian Library interior for the first time.  When I visited in 2009 we were able to see the Divinity School (where they filmed the hospital wing and dance lesson scenes from Harry Potter) but weren't able to get into one of the limited library tours.  This time we made sure to go early and book the tour so we wouldn't miss it.  It was definitely worth it.

The library itself is much bigger than the room featured on the tour - Oxford has more than twelve million volumes in its care with an additional 5,000 arriving daily (they store one copy of everything that is printed - magazines, pamphlets, books, etc.). The library featured here (that we couldn't take pictures of, grrrr) features some of the oldest editions in their care.  The room itself was used to represent the Hogwarts library and its easy to see why - the architecture is stunning.  I could have stayed in there for hours.  This library was started centuries ago by the youngest brother of Henry V, who donated about 200 volumes (which doesn't seem like much, but prior to that the library only had about 20.  Incidentally, this makes me feel better about calling my home library a library.  I have more than 200 books.  It counts!)

In addition to our Harry Potter hunt, we also made our way into Narnia.  Magdalen College is my favorite.  CS Lewis was a fellow there (fellow meaning 'professor') and thanks to the college's location on the edge of town, it's always a quiet visit.  The grounds are beautiful and well kept.  A visit to Addison's Walk is a requirement.  Addison's Walk is a walking trail next to Magdalen where CS Lewis and his friends (including Tolkien) would ramble in the afternoons and talk about theology.  Lewis credits this as the place where he was converted to Christianity.  One of these days when I go to Oxford, I'll have enough time to walk the entire path.  Today, unfortunately, was not that day.

For dinner we stopped by for a visit to "The Bird and the Baby" or, as it's better known, The Eagle and Child.  This pub has been a fixture in Oxford since the 1600s but was really made famous for hosting the Inklings - a literary society made up of Lewis, Tolkien, and their friends.  They would meet in the "Rabbit Room" to share their latest ideas or writings and get feedback from each other.  It's that sort of academia that I dearly miss when I come to Oxford.  I have great friends now and we do talk about ideas and philosophies (probably more so than most groups), but there is something really unique and special about the bubble of academia.

That said, I love that I get to live in both worlds.  As a teacher of the humanities (especially one who co-teaches), I have the luxury of spending a lot of time talking about ideas and philosophies and oddities of the world.  Conversely, I'm not so entrenched within that bubble of academics that I spend all my time talking and no time accomplishing anything.  At least, I like to think so.  I sincerely hope that I've accomplished things (or inspired others to accomplish things) that, if not Nobel Prize worthy, still make the world a better place.

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