When I was a little girl I could always be found reading a book; while my siblings were out leading the neighborhood in street hockey games of epic proportions; I would be curled up in a chair somewhere reading stories that took me to far away places. Every Christmas my favorite gifts were the ones that I had identified under the tree as books; they sat there so delicately wrapped in paper that shined under the twinkling of the colored lights laced throughout the tree branches. When Christmas morning finally came, and after the big unwrapping event had ceased; I would take my little treasures to my room and line them along the bookshelf that my dad and grandpa had made me, and then I would begin the process of choosing which one I should read first. When I was a teenager I found myself spending my money from my part time job on Oprah’s latest picks for her larger than life book club. Lastly, when I was married and in my twenties I joined my first intimate book club; a group of women, American ex-pats, all brought together in England because of our husbands jobs. We shared the duty of hosting book club once a month, rotating between each other’s homes in our little cozy town in Oxfordshire, England.
I came to discover that I was not only involved in a book club that exposed me to cultures and writers I had never explored before, but that right in the heart of this beautiful county was a literary trove of writers and stories so historically vast that I spent my days wandering in and out of their worlds; all of us linked through time through a lovely university town called: Oxford.
I remember the first time that I had gotten off the bus in Oxford, I decided to get off somewhere along St. Giles only to promptly come to a group of pedestrians standing outside a pub called, The Eagle and Child, I came to find out that this pub had been frequented by none other than the literary greats, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Tolkien and Lewis had been a part of a literary discussion group called: The Inklings. This group would mostly meet at Magdalen College, the school in which Lewis lived, but occasionally the group would meet at the pub. First readings of The Lord of the Rings were given here.
I stepped inside and took a seat at a table; I ordered a diet coke, and in true American style said, “no lemon, and with ice, please”. I wondered if they had sat at these very tables? By this time The Lord of the Rings had already been made into a movie trilogy that had taken the movie world by storm. Accumulatively nominated for 30 Academy awards and winning 17, it could arguably be named the best trilogy in the history of film. Sitting in this pub I wondered if Tolkien could have ever imagined the heights that his works would reach? I had worked at Barnes & Noble in the states one Christmas as boxed sets of the beloved novels flew off the shelves.
After my soda, I decided to hit the pavement. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going but my motto has always been: if I don’t know what exactly it is that I want to see and I’ve never seen any of it, then it doesn’t exactly matter where I wander, does it? So with that philosophy in mind, I walked out of the pub and turned right seeing as how to the left looked like nothing but boring houses and motor vehicles while to the right I could see the beginnings of some shops, and more people on foot. I came to a corner with a Waterstone’s bookstore, which was a chain bookstore in England. In the window was a flier announcing a night with Ian McEwan coming soon. I jotted down the date and time in my moleskin notebook in my purse. I didn’t go into Waterstone’s but was reminded of another bookstore that a friend had told me I must visit when I made it into town. The store was called Blackwell’s and it was an institution in Oxford. I asked a passerby the whereabouts and lucky for me it was just off the main road I had been traveling by a few blocks or so. While Blackwell’s didn’t turn out to be the journey for me that it had been for my neighbor, I thought it was a nice bookstore overall with a rich history. Apparently they had been the publisher of one of Tolkien’s first poems. I imagine my neighbor felt about the store the way I would feel if I ever got the chance to visit City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.
After perusing the shelves I headed back down the road in the direction I had came to put me back to the main street that I wanted to continue to explore further. I pressed on past many British chains all the while remembering how my favorite United States President had attended Oxford. At this point, President Clinton had already released his book, My Life. I had listened to an audio version of it in the car for months and had eventually bought a hard copy when I met him at a book signing event in Washington D.C. It made me wonder; were great people drawn to Oxford, or did those same people only become great once they’d been to Oxford?
College students were everywhere; female students pranced through town in their ballet flats and with colorful scarves wrapped repeatedly around their necks; walking along with their friends and laughing. I heard a group of them behind me, “He just doesn’t like me because I’m soft!” I loved that, again, I made a note in my moleskin; how much more flattering it sounded in England than in America when one feels turned down because of their weight. Male students looked studious in their peacoats and glasses, zipping through the market street on their old fashioned looking bicycles.
I walked on and eventually found myself at Christ Church College, I paid a small fee to enter and before I knew it I was standing on the same staircase that Professor McGonagall stands on when she greets the students to their very first meal at Hogwarts in the children’s movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; based on the beloved children’s book of the same title. I couldn’t believe it, for years I had been obsessed with this series; reading every book upon its midnight release, flying my sisters all over the world to go see the movies with me. I could not wait to come back to this spot with them when they came to town to visit me. Ahead of me at the top of the stairs was some ruckus as large amounts of people gathered at an entrance waiting for their turn to enter into the dining hall of the college, also used as the famous dining hall in the Harry Potter franchise.
As I walked around the room, people pointed out the stained glass windows inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Professor Lewis Carroll had been inspired and written the book from Christ Church College. I couldn’t believe that students dined here, beneath these windows in this great hall. When I’d had enough of battling with tourists through the hall, I left the building and just off the grounds and across the street from the college I came to the smallest shop called, “Alice’s Shop.” It has become history that Carroll wrote his story for the Dean of Christ Church’s daughter, Alice Liddell. Alice and her sisters had loved to visit this hundreds of years old shop, and so in the sequel to Alice, Professor Carroll wrote the shop into Through the Looking Glass. The shop nowadays sells little trinkets dedicated to the novels: tea sets, books, and dolls.
As I left the tiny souvenir shop I thought about my day; I had really only traveled the length of a really long street. But this street was not your average street, it was bookended by two literary masters: Tolkien and Carroll. If Hollywood is home to the stars then Oxford could easily be home to the greatest writers of literature; sprawling throughout time Oxford has housed some of the greatest minds that have come up with some of the most enchanting stories.
I made my way back to the bus stop in front of The Eagle and Child, thinking about my day. Because of the people that had once haunted these streets, I not only got to visit Oxford, but I’ve been to Wonderland, Narnia, and Middle Earth.