Holland House Library, London -- September, 1940 (RCHME Crown copyright)

Consider the well-known photograph taken of Holland House in London of September 1940, the morning after a German air raid had devastated the house, but had somehow left the library walls, with their shelves of neatly arranged books, mostly intact. This was the period of the Blitz, when the German Luftwaffe bombed London and other English cities continuously for months, hoping to make Britain vulnerable to a land invasion. Holland House, the remnants of which now form part of an open-air theater, was built in 1605 for Sir Walter Cope. It was one of the first "great houses" of Kensington, and during England's Civil War it was occupied by Cromwell's army.The photograph shows three men in bowler hats who appear quite comfortable, even calm, as they browse and select books from the tidy stacks, while all around them lie the bombed-out ruins of the house, its roof smashed to pieces, its charred beams exposed, ladders and chairs and other assorted pieces of furniture crushed under the rubble. But the browsers appear oblivious to the terrors of the night before and the chaos surrounding them on all sides. They are the very image of scholarly repose, of quiet study and reflective contemplation, and the symmetry of the books and shelves are the very picture of order in the midst of disorder. Outside, but also inside, lies a world on the brink of apocalypse, what Churchill called "the abyss of a new dark age" (Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War: Their Finest Hour [Boston, 1949], 2: 225-26).

The photograph provides an image of the fetishization of the text, or document, of the ways in which history attaches itself, not to the social disturbances and crises surrounding it on all sides, but to the ruins of the past, and even more so, to the orderly archive of the narratives of those ruins. In that austere repository of the bound volumes of fabula and historia -- the library -- the scholar seeks the world of lived human experience but encounters instead one of its chief symptoms -- writing.

from Eileen A. Joy, Postcard from the Volcano: Beowulf, Memory, History, book-in-progress