Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Random Rant

(rant inspired by work during August research trip…though writing this post may, perhaps, not exactly qualify as dissertation progress)

Why do the French (and other Europeans) print their spine titles upside down?

I mean, certain minor differences between customs in the US and the rest of the world make sense to me (on their part): if the ground floor is 0, it makes it easier to know that you walk up one flight to the first floor, 5 flights to the 5th floor and so on.

seven with line through middle

Always crossing the middle of a “7” seems like a sensible plan for standardizing clear handwriting.

But while turning your head to the left vs. the right to look along a bookshelf maybe isn’t a big deal,* it is patently obvious when you place books flat on a table that their titles are upside down.  Do Europeans always lay their books on their stomachs?  (The books’ stomachs, that is, not the Europeans’.)

Fig. 1a, 1b

German & French books on their side with upside-down titles German books from the top

(click to embiggen and see the travesty more clearly)

Fig. 2a, 2b

American-published books from the side American books from the top

I’m (sort of) an historian of the book, but I have no idea where this split came from.  This doesn’t really shed any light.

Fig. 3

books together as if on shelf

(observe a graduate student in her natural habitat, i.e. actually working)

* Except when you have a mix of American- and European-published works jumbled together, which is just an extra dose of irritating.


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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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My trip to France this summer was the first time I’ve been in Paris during the notorious “fermeture” of the August vacances, when the city shuts down for a month-long holiday.

"Closed for August vacation" signs in the 18th arr.

[Photograph from http://cedricm.blogspot.com/2005_08_01_archive.html]

It was amazing to see how thoroughly this pervades the city: everyone from the man who repairs umbrellas in the Marais to French blogs go on vacation. It also makes “la rentrée,” the beginning of the school year and reopening of businesses in September, a much bigger deal than it is in the (decentralized) United States. See, even Astérix is getting back to the grindstone!

Book cover for Astérix et la rentrée gauloise

But I was tickled to read in a girls’ magazine from the 19th century that this phenomenon is nothing new. Here is the almanac’s entry for the month of August:

The month of August is a time of rest for children; those who have taken part in the prize-giving have permission to enjoy themselves all the time during vacation; they play all the games possible with their little comrades.

Le mois d’Août est pour les enfants un temps de repos; ceux qui ont eu part à la distribution des prix ont la permission de se divertir pendant tout le temps des vacances; il jouent à tous les jeux possibles avec leurs petits camarades.

La Poupée: Almanach des Petites Filles (1869, p. 12)

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Children’s fiction in the late Enlightenment was often presented in dialogue, as a sort of play. Some of these publications are surprisingly engaging, with comic characters, little dramatic subplots, and even minor stage directions. This kind of dialogue provokes interesting questions about how young people might have interacted with the text and one another, in an age when reading aloud was still more common than not.

But those stories are definitely the exception. For the most part, these exchanges between “real children” are as didactic and forced as other early children’s literature. It’s odd, though, to see even a two-dimensional, paper child expressing opinions about their own learning, when I’m so urgently seeking any scraps of evidence about real children’s reading subjectivities. I need to spend more time thinking about the relationships between historical readers and these dramatis personae.

Here’s an example from perhaps the most famous French periodical for young people, Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s Magasin des Enfans, which I finally got around to reading in the BnF last month. Take a look at this exchange between two friends about their dolls and trinkets:

Lady Spiritual: It’s been more than six months since I threw all these things in the fire: I begged Papa to give me all the money that he had spend on these bagatelles so that I could buy books and pay all kinds of teachers.

Lady Babiole [name of a fairy tale princess from Mme. d’Aulnoy]: I’m not of your taste: if I were the mistress, in place of giving two guineas a month to my geography teacher, I would have the most beautiful things in the world brought from Paris; this would amuse me very much, instead of this man boring me to death; when I see him, I can’t stop yawning at every moment: he tells Mama, she scolds me, and that makes me hate the teacher and geography even more.

Lady Spiritual: You don’t like reading stories?

Lady Babiole: No, honestly, my dear; still, it’s necessary that I read, because Papa wants it: but when I’m grown up; and can do what I want, I assure you that I will never read.


I suppose there’s a way in which we could read these characters as together demonstrating a range of opinions that more or less does represent girls’ feelings in 18th c. France. But the problem is that the rest of the story is obviously intended to persuade its contemporary audience that Lady Spiritual’s position is the only one moral and true.   Hmm. Before I leave this passage to percolate, I want to point out how radical it is that even the sanctimonious Spiritual is shown to be making her own choices about her time, education, money, and consumption!

[Below is the original text. French experts, forgive any errors I’ve made in my quick translation. Better yet, suggest any changes in the comments!]

Lady Spirituelle. Il y a plus de six mois que j’ai jeté toutes ces choses dans le feu: j’ai prié papa de me donner tout l’argent qu’il employait à ces bagatelles, pour acheter des livres, et payer toutes sortez de maîtres.

Lady Babiole. Je ne suis point de votre goût: si j’étais la maîtresse, au lieu de donner deux guinées par mois à mon maître de géographie, je ferais venir de Paris les plus jolies choses du monde; cela m’amuserait beaucoup, au lieu que cet homme m’ennuie à la mort; quand je le vois, je ne puis m’empêcher de bâiller à tous momens: il le dit à maman, on me gronde, et cela fait que je hais encore davantage le maître et la géographie.

Lady Spirituelle. Vous n’aimez donc pas à lire des histoire?

Lady Babiole. Non, en vérité; ma chère; il faut cependant que je lise, car papa le veut: mais quand je serai grande; et que je pourrai faire ce que je voudrai, je vous assure que je ne lirai jamais.

*    *    *

2 notes: First, is it possible that there’s a relationship between the French gronder, to scold, and the American sense of “being grounded”?  Or is the latter simply a borrowed metaphor from aeronautics?  And second, though I haven’t even gotten through the posts from my first stay in Paris, I’m now back in the city for one night (perfectly timed with a transit strike) before flying back across the ocean.  To be close to the train station, I’m staying in a delightfully disreputable hostel near Montmartre.  It’s very vie bohème.  At least in my head.

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