City of Literature

When I visited Prague for the first time, I remember telling my father that you could feel the literature seeping out of the cobblestones. The place was just oozing with literary intent and potential. For someone who’s as in love with literature as I am, it was an experience that was hard to beat.

And yet, there’s Edinburgh.

If I had to describe the literary atmosphere in Edinburgh, I’d have to say that it just is. Literature isn’t seeping out of anything. You don’t round a corner and find yourself surprised by something. There’s no secret handshake among the initiated that allows you to decipher the meaning of the behemoth in Princes Street Gardens. Edinburgh just is literature.

I’m not the only one to have noticed this. In 2004, Edinburgh was made the first-ever UNESCO City of Literature (at Edinburgh’s behest, I’m told). This city has contributed so much to world literature that UNESCO actually decided that it should be recognized for it. When you’ve lived here for any length of time, it becomes apparent why.

When you walk down the Royal Mile, there’s a café called “The Rabbie Burns,” named after the Scots-writing poet Robert Burns. At the other end of the Royal Mile, there’s the Writers Museum, dedicated to the lives of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The largest monument in the world dedicated to a writer dominates Princes Street Gardens. One of the main streets in Old Town is flanked by two impressive buildings, one housing the National Library of Scotland and the other housing the Edinburgh Central Library. Quotes from writers and their writings decorate shop windows. They have bookshops like Americans have Rite Aids, one on every corner. A recent survey shows that Scots are more likely to make use of their public library than any other group in Britain (I’d hate to see how that number compares to the States).

And they have a Rare Books Festival.

Edinburgh, in addition to being a City of Literature, is a festival city. Several times a year (with one big BANG in August), there are festivals dedicated to something or other in and around Edinburgh. The Rare Book Festival took place at the end of March.

Over the course of two weeks, different venues hosted events relating to rare books and the history of the book. The Quaker Meeting House held a series of public lectures, including a fascinating one about censorship in 19th-century Britain. The National Library of Scotland opened up their vault of incunabula (books printed between 1450 and 1500 – the oldest of the old printed books) to the public, and offered a session for playing with these books (N.B.: I use the word playing loosely in this sentence; don’t go saying I told you to play football with incunabula).



The festival culminated in its most anticipated event: the book fair. Rare books dealers from all over Britain congregated in the Radisson Blu hotel on the Royal Mile to show off their wares. There were two different ballrooms of dealers’ stalls, selling every type of ‘book’ you can imagine, from actual books, to an unbound first-edition copy of Ulysses, to letters from famous people, to early printed maps. My friends and I found ourselves drooling over a set of the complete works of the Brontë sisters, leather bound with gold tooling (several of us asked our parents for the requisite £700 to buy it, but, alas, all of us were denied).


Perhaps the most exciting part of the rare books fair, though, was that my program got to go on a field trip – yes, we have those at the postgrad level and no, we are not any less excited by the prospect than small children going to the zoo. Our assignment was to browse the editions on sale and find works that would work well in the holdings of the University of Edinburgh, as per the acquisition policy that we’d been given. The main concern was how the books fit with the collections already maintained by the university. For instance, the maps were a bit out of bounds, because the university does not have a wide collection of maps; however, the copy of Ulysses caused much excitement among library staff, as many students in the literature department write dissertations and do research on that particular text, and, until then, the library did not have an early copy of the book for them to consult. Needless to say, we executed this task with aplomb, locating a rather respectable number of works that were subsequently bought by the University of Edinburgh library.

Also needless to say, several of us went back the next day and started our own rare books collections.

Edinburgh may be “half alive and half a monument marble,” but it certainly is wholly literary.



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