On BBC radio, there used to be a programme called A History of the World in 100 Objects: the presenter takes a single object and pursues its history and relevance through time, engaging us in discovery and connection. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is currently exploring 600 years of German history looking at objects as small as ducats, as crafted as Riemenschneider's limewood sculptures and as pivotal as the Friedrichstraße station.
Manuscripts like Luther's 1541 Bible examine the creation of an entire language.
In Princeton, New Jersey, Pulitzer prize winning novelist Toni Morrison's lifetime works, manuscripts, drafts and proofs are finally being added to the permanent library collection at Princeton University. As writers, we seem particularly fascinated by the crafting process, the scribbled postscripts, the writing in the margins in the hands of our greats that become invisible in the final work.
On a shelf at home is a copy of Brontë's Jane Eyre that belonged to my aunt Saida. From childhood, until she recently died, my aunt had two best friends called Zia and Pushpa (known throughout their lives as The Girls). Aunty's copy of Jane Eyre, which I first read when I was a girl, has pencil scribblings throughout the pages, but particularly beside the 'juicy' romantic bits. Saida and The Girls passed the book around during class and their comments range from silly to naughty to incomprehensible inside jokes. The experience for me was then, as it is now, deeply satisfying.
I often buy books for friends, but find myself hesitating to write inscriptions. Recently I sent my beloved Mary a copy of Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision - and wrote with such a faint pencil that she almost missed the inscription altogether. I can't understand why I am so loathe to leave any mark in a book. Do you have any ideas? My shelves are full of books I love, and return to, and reach instinctively for even if simply to hold them. Why am I afraid to leave my mark, pencil or otherwise, in the margins? I was here. Is that not something of importance? Do I feel so insignificant in the scheme of things that I may as well leave no mark?
Last week, I left this reductive, diminishing voice at home and walked on to a stage, and became a Master of Arts graduate. I wore the gown with pride, tossing my tasselly hat about (carefully, so as not to dislodge the single bob pin holding it down - I had lent my other bobby pin to a fellow grad whose hat was rocketing about, bobbypinless).
I walked on to the stage, thinking of Malala Yousafzai, who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize, feeling proud that I am an educated woman. Knowing she would be proud of me.