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Jul 28, 2020

I received an unusual book recommendation from a generous mentor while discussing my research on early modern weather knowledge. The book recommended to me was Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Embarrassingly I admitted I had never read it, nor any of Woolf’s other great novels. So I made it my business to acquire a copy and begin reading as soon as possible.

My resolve brought me to a small, independent bookshop on Sansom St, near Rittenhouse Square. Nestled between a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlour and a hair salon, the wooden sign above the mezzanine-level door read: ‘Joseph Fox Bookstore’. The windows displayed an eclectic collection of books on architecture, cooking, literature among other themes. Stepping inside, a low shelf brimming with new releases by self-help authors greets me on the left, and on the right a large bottle of hand sanitiser. The narrow hall leading into the store is lined with new releases on ancient, medieval and modern history—some surprising titles like Jonathan Israel’s latest 1,000-page non-thriller about the Enlightenment and Carlos Eire’s massive book on the Reformation. Passing through, I found the classic literature section further inside, and a small collection of books by Virginia Woolf. The jacket illustration is not to my liking, but I grab the only copy of Orlando after scanning the neighbouring shelves in vain for different editions. On the way out, I reach for the small, paperback copy of Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis (2017).

I’m now two chapters into Woolf’s ‘biography.’ How cold the winters of the Elizabethan age were, how different the climate, the sunrises and sunsets compared to Woolf’s twentieth century. The Thames froze solid for months, winter nights were undisturbed by industrial lights, the air was crisp and appropriate for the stimulation of poetic minds. How different ours is from hers, and from his.