Things You Can Say in Oxford, Where You Live in a Palimpsest

Was there a boy (chances are it was a boy) who lived in this room decades ago before me, and sat like me at this desk (or one like it) in the heat and sunshine and the springtime sounds of Broad Street, with half a cup full of tea gone cold and Bach crackling on the radio, and pored over the pages of Calamus, seeking in himself the words to do justice to “the tender love of comrades”?

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if there were an anonymous boy whom history has forgotten, whose name was not Symonds or Pater or Wilde, who was a member of this college which has not lent its name to anything particular in the history of homoerotic Oxford, but who thought all the same about who he was and what he was reading.

I wonder what he’d think if he could imagine 2011. I wonder what he’d think if he knew there was a girl now sitting at his desk.

The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special, particular, to you; and here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met—maybe even someone long-dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

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