What is genius? How would you recognise it? How would you capture its signs and present them for the world?
The Bodleian Library has launched its new Weston Gallery with a fantastic exhibition asking just these questions. The collection is drawn from the library's own masterpieces. Items need not be famous, old, rare, or even books to be included, but what they all have in common is that they are products of extraordinary minds, minds touched by sublime flashes of genius, or lifelong streams of amazing productivity alike.
Even queuing to go in gives you a chance to marvel at the place, with a projection on the wall charting the Bodleian's history. Queues have not been excessive, and you're unlikely to need to wait more than 10 minutes, if at all.
Name an important work in the history of ideas and it may well be here. The first room is dark, for the sake of preserving the items, but full of absolutely amazing pieces. Exhibits include a first folio of Shakespeare from 1623. This exhibition is a true bibliophile's paradise. There is also an unfinished 1874 manuscript of the works of Horace, the Roman satiric poet, written by William Morris, with delicate penstrokes and ornate illustrations.
Items don't have to be just books as we know them. Mendelssohn's manuscript for Schilflied (Reed song, 1845) features in this room. In a nearby case is the delicate, jade-bound edition of twenty poems by the eighteenth-century emperor Gaozong.
Some exhibits tell of authority challenged, and major developments in knowledge. The portrait of Galileo Galilei alongside some of his works is one such case. This exhibition honours those whose genius has furthered human discovery, at all kinds of cost.
Once you have finished in the first room, you move past Basil Blackwell's book collection into a second, larger room. One of the first exhibits is a Gutenberg Bible, the first printed book (c.1455). There are also particularly find exhibits of illustrations, and other notable works. There is a whole section on Tolkien and Middle Earth, for example, including the dustjacket for the first edition of The Hobbit.
A 1217 Magna Carta, brought out just two years after the famous (but short-lived) 1215 edition sits proudly in one case, demonstrating justice at work, and the longlasting effect of ancient texts. Even books on books feature, with Pope's Essay on Criticism also on display. The text is the manuscript sent to his published in 1711, with even the page breaks marked.
Photography is allowed, as long as you don't use a flash. The exhibition runs until 20th September 2015. Interest in the exhibition has spread beyond the library itself. A limited edition (350 copies) book is available, charting the treasures. Blackwells Bookshop has had a separate display of books relevant to the exhibition, so you can chase up your interests afterwards. This inaugural exhibition in the new library is truly magnificent.