Two cultures, one Library

Chances are, if you’re visiting the Library, you’ve got one thing in mind: finding the books you need for your latest assignment or exam. But have you ever stopped to wonder what’s on all those other shelves? By Martin Monahan

In 1959, C.P. Snow famously described the two cultures of Western society: on the one side the arts and humanities, on the other the sciences. He argued that these two cultures operated apart, causing an unnecessary division that hindered the forming of a complete approach to the problems of the world.

You have probably found this division present in your own university experience, either at undergraduate or postgraduate level. Ploughing through your own subject can seem daunting enough—be it Chemistry or English, Engineering or Politics—and, almost inevitably, your intellectual furrow becomes narrowed as it becomes deeper. But, university is the ideal time to read outside the subject you are taking as a degree and there is no better place to do this than the Library. Be it a systematic search or just a casual browsing, many wonders can be found outside the reading list that has been assigned to you.

You may even, as C.P. Snow once suggested, choose to cross the gap between the two cultures. And whether you’re a scientist interested in the arts or an arts and humanities student interested in the sciences, you’re not alone. There is a grand precedence for such ‘interdisciplinarity’ (to use the contemporary jargon); or perhaps here we mean more disciplinary AWOL. If you are a medic, you may care to examine the long list of doctors who have also been accomplished writers and poets. William Carlos Williams, alongside a thriving medical practice, wrote some of the most important modernist verse of the early twentieth century:

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

(from ‘Danse Russe’, William Carlos Williams)

Likewise, Chekhov, Keats, Mikhail Bulgakov, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Alfred Döblin, were all familiar with both the stethoscope and the fountain pen. Thomas Hardy trained as an architect, and the architect Le Corbusier knocked out a poem or two (as well as being the co-founder of the Purist art movement). The great physicist Richard Feynman was a fine essayist and memoirist: his popular writings can be found in the floor 2 extension. Meanwhile, the actress Hedy Lamarr engaged in ground-breaking research in torpedo radio guidance during the Second World War: her autobiography is available from the store.

The finance section on Floor 5 may not seem the most obvious place for a Philosophy student to visit, but Voltaire, after all, was a renowned investor, becoming one of the richest men in France in his lifetime, and a billionaire in today’s money. Politics students could head over to the music shelves, or even visit The Music Centre, taking their inspiration from Giuseppe Verdi, who briefly became a politician; and law students could follow Wassily Kandinsky, who trained as a lawyer but switched to being a painter (though only after gaining his degree!).

After you graduate, and embark on further study or move into a career, the sense of feeling trapped in one of the ‘two cultures’ can increase. So there’s no better time than now to break out and to read more widely. Next time you take a wrong turn amongst the Library shelves, you may just be taking your first step towards a new culture!

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