My Favourite Library Lit for Life

For Peter Frankopan, the Bodleian Library in Oxford feels like home

Being a professor, I suppose it is not a surprise to learn that I love books. The first thing I notice when visiting a friend’s house are the bookshelves, and it’s unusual not to find myself drawn towards them like a moth to a flame. I’m usually keeping an eye out for something I don’t know or have not seen before. I love it when I find something new.

So bookshops and libraries are places of pilgrimage for me. I am incapable of leaving any bookshop, big or small, without stacks of new volumes under both arms.

My wife and I met at Cambridge and have built up our library together over nearly 30 years. While we never argue, I think if you were to ask her what one thing she’d change about me, it would be that I brought fewer books back to the house. We ran out of bookshelves a long time ago. Chances are if I mislay something — my cricket bat, for example, or one of our children — they will be hiding, stuck or lost behind my books.

So outside our own house, my favourite place in the world is the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Founded at the start of the 17th century, ‘the Bod’ has over twelve million books — and is required by law to hold a copy of every book published in the U.K.

My own favourites are the Byzantine Greek manuscripts mainly written in Constantinople, a lavish edition of the Travels of Marco Polo, and the Selden Map — one of the first maps of China to reach Europe that must have been made around 1650. The collections for South Asia and Russia are also remarkable.

The Indiana Jones feeling

Some days I head to the library and just browse. Reading for the sake of reading is one of the greatest joys in life: learning something purely for pleasure and by chance is a wonderful thing to be able to do. Other times, heading to the Bodleian has more of an Indiana Jones like feeling (all historians have seen the films, and we all secretly think we have something in common with the great film hero — except his dubious research technique and methodology).

Being a historian means trying to uncover something new, or trying to look at and explain the past in a different way. Doing that requires some intellectual bravery, some skill and a lot of luck: sometimes discoveries or ideas really do seem to fall from the heavens.

The Bodleian is not one but several buildings. I work in different spots depending what I am working on. I like that variety — though I do also need to concentrate to stop myself drifting off to examine books I have not read before.

A historian requires the concentration of a batsman settling in for a long innings. Not everyone finds the same thing easy or difficult; but for me, finding a rhythm that works is the most important thing.

The Bodleian certainly helps with that. I first got my reader’s card when I moved across from Cambridge 25 years ago to do my Ph.D. After such a long time, the Bod does not just feel like a part of my life. It feels like home.

The author is Professor of Global History at Oxford University. His book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, a worldwide bestseller, is published by Bloomsbury.


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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 5:45:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/for-peter-frankopan-the-bodleian-library-in-oxford-feels-like-home/article22373943.ece

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