Adventures in Huntingtonland, Pt. 1

I feel very privileged to be able to write this post. Here I am, sitting behind my desk on a quiet Saturday afternoon in Pasadena, California. The soaring heat of the past weeks has turned into a mellow breeze, and though the week to come promises interesting temperatures once more, it is all right. I do not particularly enjoy the heat, nor does my skin, but the rewards far outweigh the discomforts.

I have been working in the Huntington Library in San Marino since Wednesday afternoon, and what a pleasure it has been so far. It is a wonderful environment to be working in, and the librarians and other staff have all been very helpful. I have been able to examine a number of books from the Babson collection that were once in Isaac Newton’s own library, and found some interesting marginalia. More about those in a later instalment of this series, but it’s such a thrilling experience – I open the very first book …. and find myself staring at an inserted leaf in what is unmistakeably Newton’s hand.

Sounds of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and Chelsea Hotel fill my study. A brilliant composer, Cohen. I find myself attracted to more and more of his songs. In a 2009 interview he admits looking forward to being 80, and born September 21, 1934, he passed that milestone last week. In an earlier post I mused about Newton’s own long lifespan. Although his physical health deteriorated, his brain was sharp as ever, and I am looking at many, many leaves of Chronology material all written in those final years.

It is all one big puzzle: thousands of manuscript leaves, heavily disorganised, with countless additions and insertions, and no dates whatsoever. But it is also a unique view into Newton’s creative process – throughout the distortion there is a genial composer at work, arranging an immense number of sources in at least four languages, writing, and rewriting, and rewriting. What is he thinking? What is he doing? And how can I make sense of all of this? To be continued…

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