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  • Andre Lamartin

Treasures of the British Library

The British library is the world’s greatest library housing over 150 million items and 15 million books. A few weeks ago I applied for a library card, also referred to as a reader’s pass, and finally received it today after presenting all the necessary documentation. Aside from the unfathomable wealth of knowledge that this little plastic card can unlock, it also grants me access to the Lexis Nexis and Westlaw databases containing all the statutes and about 10 centuries worth of English case law, an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to study and practice law.

However, what impressed me the most today about my visit to the library was the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, which houses the most prized treasures of the British Library. Since visitors are prohibited from taking pictures, I apologize for the lack of visual aids, but will try my best to describe the highlights of what I saw.

The gallery houses the Magna Carta, the first legal document to impose limitations on the absolute power of a monarch, setting the foundations for future democratic governments. It also houses drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci, letters written by Newton, Darwin, Churchill, original compositions by Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy, the Gutenberg bible, not to mention the original publications of various Shakespearean plays.

A few interesting observations based on what I saw. Towards the end of his life, Sir Isaac Newton had a complete nervous breakdown, suffering from paranoia and delusions that some of his closest friends were persecuting him. This was documented in letters written by Newton during his darkest days. He barely slept for a year and had he lived today, would surely have been committed to a mental institution. This just goes to show that even the brightest of minds has a breaking point. No one is immune from the nefarious effects of stress.

Now moving on to classical music. Before visiting the gallery, I read that Mozart and Beethoven had remarkably different styles of composition. While Beethoven would ceaselessly write and rewrite a passage until he was finally satisfied, Mozart would commit all music to paper only once and then rarely change it after that.

The remarkable thing is that by reading the music on display, I really get the feeling that this was true. Mozart’s piece seems much cleaner in comparison to Beethoven’s original sheet music, which was reworked several times over. Einstein himself considered that both were perfectionists, but deemed Mozart the superior artist whose music captivated the heart by its effortless and natural simplicity. Beethoven, on the other hand, was a strict disciplinarian and ceaselessly worked and reworked his music. This seems to be on display for all to see in the gallery.

Now, before you picture me as a closet intellectual, allow me to come out and say that what really impressed me the most in the gallery wasn’t Da Vinci, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Newton, Darwin, or even the Magna Carta, it was the small section devoted to the Beatles. On display were the original lyrics to all time classics such as Yesterday, Ticket to Ride, Help, etc., not to mention a letter written by John to the man who would have been the fifth Beatle, but decided to go to art school and died at an early age.

A few final interesting observations. One day McCartney woke up and had the whole melody to Yesterday in his head. He started humming and temporarily named the song scrambled eggs. However, he could not be certain if this was his original composition or a song that he had heard somewhere else before. He actually had to stop, gather his thoughts and conduct some research before convincing himself that the song was his own original composition. He then sat down to write the lyrics, which are on display and, in my humble opinion, are heart wrenchingly beautiful. They remind me of a fellow Beatlemaniac whom I have not seen in a very long time and whom I sorely miss, may God bless her heart.

Regarding the song Help, after touring for two long years, Lennon was exhausted and living secluded in an area of London reserved for wealthy bankers. The song was literally a plea for help, given the mental anguish he was experiencing at the time. The lyrics are also on display at the gallery.

In the end, the feeling I had by being in such close proximity to manuscripts produced by some of the greatest minds of the Western world was one of humility, awe and reassurance. In a way, it is extremely reassuring to know that the same human race that is capable of producing so much death and destruction, is also capable of producing so much beauty, be it musical, literary, scientific or even legal.

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