Archive for the ‘BnF’ Category

Wow, ten posts in and I’m already resorting to epigraphing DNA a second time.

The Campaigners for Real Time claim that just as easy travel eroded the differences between one country and another, and between one world and another, so time travel is now eroding the differences between one age and another. “The past,” they say, “is now truly like a foreign country. They do things exactly the same there.”

Life, The Universe, and Everything, chapter 11 (Douglas Adams)

Instead of what would inevitably be mundane and myopic dispatches from Fellowship Application Writing Land, where I have taken up temporary residence, here’s another tidbit from my foreign travels back in August. In fact, it is a timely piece of advice as I’m in the middle of planning another Europe trip for January.

In 1781, Henri-Abraham Chatelain wanted parents of students to know the benefits of travel for their daughters. It would, he rhapsodized, allow students:

a.  To extend their knowledge and augment their enlightenment.
b.  To develop their judgement and perfect their taste.
c.  To acquire a more special knowledge of men.
d.  To train themselves in good manners and the customs of the world.
e.  To make themselves more skilled in their profession.

Have your life travels done all that for shaping your character? I don’t have a definitive assessment for you of whether I have augmented my enlightenment and acquired a more special knowledge of men, but I can tell you that the same day I read the Chatelain pamphlet in France, I also recorded this observation about working in the unusual space of the Bibliothèque nationale:

Today I was placed in one of the seats that must be in high demand come dark, northern winter. Around 3:30 the sun started beating in, making me so kitten-on-the-windowsill sleepy that it took me three minutes to realize the reason I couldn’t understand the book in my hands? It was in Dutch, not German.

a. D’étendre leurs connaissances & d’augmenter leurs lumières.
b. De former leur jugement & de perfectionner leur goût.
c. D’acquérir une connaissance plus particulière des hommes.
d. De se former aux bonnes manières & a l’usage du monde.
e. De se rendre plus habiles dans leur profession.

Henri-Abraham Chatelain, L’Éducation mise à la portée de tout le monde (Lausanne: Jules Henri Pott & Comp., 1781), 136.


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Toward the end of my research trip to France, I made the unfortunate discovery that during la rentrée, the end of la fermeture, when everyone comes back to Paris and school begins, it’s imperative to reserve a seat at the BnF the second that reservations open….or you’ll fail to get a spot at all. Which is what happened to me, after three weeks of easy access and learning the system. It meant the few hours at the end when I did manage to get into this strange subterranean building were pretty frantic, but there was a fun silver lining.

My mother and I had a lovely lunch with a family friend who works at the BnF and gave us the enormous treat of going “behind the scenes” to the staff canteen (this being France, there are at least 3 public cafés elsewhere in the library). Then, because I couldn’t get in to do actual work, we got to go up the towers with him!

First, a note on the strange/genius/ghastly/stunning architecture of the relatively new Bibliothèque nationale main site, François-Mitterand. It provokes strong, polar reactions in visitors and users. So far, I’ve met two historians who are definite fans (mostly because the highly automated, centralized, organized system for reserving places to work and books from the collection is apparently a big improvement on the old library). But others find the underground labyrinth confusing and the architecture a bleak error in the classic Parisian landscape.

All the books are kept in the four huge towers, while the readers sit underground. This caused a now infamous problem: the architect forgot to protect the books from sunlight, and heavy wooden shutters had to be installed.

So, those shutters may work well to preserve the collection, but not, let me tell you, to give a feeling of security at your back while you’re standing on the outside in front of floor-to-ceiling glass and all of Paris is spread out in miniature at your feet.  My mother bravely walked all the way along one edge with our host, but I chickened out and crept back to the safety of the elevator.

I did, however, get to see lots of other neat things behind the scenes. For example, the books are transported from various nooks and crannies in these enormous towers via little pods on moving tracks, sort of like the train at Curtis Orchards.

This video will let you see the books traveling on their merry way, though it also reveals that we weren’t the very first explorers allowed in to see the inner workings (there are regular guided tours). Still, it was an unbelievably cool experience for us!

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Two more little finds-of-the day from the BnF in this post, trying to catch up as we make our way into October in real time (although it was warmer in Minnesota this weekend than it was two months ago in Parisian summer!).

1.  Did you know that we lose an hour and 22 minutes of day throughout the month of August? Source: Almanach des Enfans Pour l’Année 1835

2.  As is so often true, Jane Austen has the best words on the subject of today’s find-of-the-day book:

Mr. Collins: “I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies.”

“You judge very properly,” said Mr. Bennet, “and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”

“They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”

While looking at French almanacs published for kids in the late eighteenth century, I came across the Almanach des Enfants: Nouveau Recueil de Compliments et de Modèles de Lettres pour le jour de l’an, Les Fêtes de Famille, etc., etc. (1851). It’s an example of an apparently expansive genre providing readers (in this case, children) with prepared little compliments in poetry or prose that can be memorized and delivered to a parent, sibling, or teacher on particular occasions.

Now, I love my brother very much, but I have to say that I can’t think of any particular occasion on which I would be moved to recite the following to him:

It is not in vain that a mother

nourished us from the same milk,

As a brother I cherish you,

I love you as the equal of a father.

One can only hope that the audience didn’t all grow up into Mr. Collinses:

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Ce n’est pas en vain qu’une mère

Du même lait nous a nourris,

Comme un frère tu me chéris,

Moi je t’aime à l’égal d’un père.

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N.B.  These posts will be backlogged for awhile, since I started collecting them several weeks ago in Paris. But ideally the delay will allow me to catch up and start posting notes from the reading I do back in Minneapolis.

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My first morsel from the archive is actually from an Austrian journal article I was able to read at the BnF (Blumesberger, see below). It’s an analysis of youth periodicals by an author publishing in the early 19th c., Antonia Wutka, someone I’ve also studied. The article offered some biographical details I hadn’t known before about her experiences growing up in an orphanage. For example, Wutka apparently taught herself how to read and write French by studying secretly at night (without a textbook). I think it’s an especially poignant image from the life of someone who really treasured learning communities and later devoted her life to teaching, writing, and promoting girls’ education.

On a lighter note, Blumesberger claims that this secret nocturnal study meant that Wutka couldn’t actually speak a word of French until she met some French people later in life who helped perfect her accent.  Reading this on my first day in Paris last month, it gave me a welcome glimmer of hope for my own clunky French!

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source: Susanne Blumesberger, “Antonie Wutkas Encyclopädie für die weibliche Jugend: Ein Beitrag zum Jugendschriftum des frühen 19. Jahrhunderts,” Biblos: Beiträge zu Buch, Bibliothek und Schrift 50, no. 1 (2001): 23-34.

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