Elephants on Parade

My long absence was part lovely Thanksgiving with the Porter family, part the SSHA annual meeting in Chicago. So to ease my way back into the blog, how about a little elephant round-up?

1.   The brilliant Minjie Chen’s portfolio led me to Tagxedo, which I expect will be providing far too many hours of fun in the future.  To begin with, here’s one of the best results of my fall fellowship-writing so far, an elephant version of my dissertation description:

Dissertation Description Cloud

2.  Some elephants from the Überseemuseum Bremen (“The Overseas Museum”), which I visited with my friend Sujata while I was in Braunschweig last September:

Elephants in an exhibit on evolution

Elephants in the background of a primate diorama









3.  My fantastic friend Bryan sent this video along from the British kids’ cartoon, “Peppa Pig.

I love jumping up and down in puddles, too!  We’re virtually indistinguishable, though apparently this Emily’s brother is named Edmond.


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.

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.

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!


(No, not the “Judy Bkind of performance this time…a momentary break from the academic world.)

I’ve been blessed with a group of friends with special talents on a variety of stages. Their gifts have been on my mind after a series of terrific shows I’ve seen in the past month, all events I would have enjoyed even without the extra smug benefit of Knowing a Performer. (Though, n. b., no-one has yet offered me an official All-Access Backstage Pass.)

At the end of September, I was lucky enough to be home in Urbana for a tiny but perfect window of time to catch the Rantoul Theatre Group’s thrilling production of Dracula. My sometimes-twin Karen Hughes was a sensation as the alternately ridiculous and terrifying Lucy. Here’s a brief YouTube clip from the play.

Catch upcoming shows at RTG in December (A Christmas Story), March (The Miracle Worker), and May (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

After a week back in Minneapolis, I geared up for the opening concert of VocalEssence’s 2010-2011 season. I knew the music and spectacle of a staged operetta (John Philip Sousa’s El Capitan) would be fantastic, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the performance fully without feeling a little sadness that I wasn’t on stage with this phenomenal group. (After singing with the chorus for the past two years, I reluctantly had to give it up this year because of too much research travel.) But really, the performance was so charming and hilarious (especially from the hardworking chorus and the swoonable Bradley Greenwald) that I forgot about regrets and simply enjoyed myself. Hint: get your tickets now for the Garrison Keillor Thanksgiving concert, because I’m sure it will sell out soon.  Two clips for your listening pleasure below, a rehearsal video of El Capitan and last season’s WITNESS concert with Sweet Honey in the Rock:

And just this past weekend, I trekked out to Madison, WI to catch a tantalizing smorgasbord performance of the University of Wisconsin’s many choirs. My dear friend Sarah Riskind (follow that link for her professional website as a performer, conductor, AND composer) is a choral conducting graduate student there and directed several of the performances. The range in the choral program blew me away, as well as how polished and compelling the performances were this early in the semester.

In the immediate future, I’ll be benefiting from my friends’ talents in the form of a University of Minnesota studio recital presentation of “Sondheim at 80!,” (including the marvelous Jean Anderson) and, I hope, Uni friend Chris Otto’s Jack Quartet November concert at Madison. Not to mention upcoming shows I’ll be very sorry to miss: the Williams College Elizabethans’ fall concert (early this year, November 20); Brad Wells’s remarkable ensemble shown below, Roomful of Teeth (though, secret: I’m holding out hope that I might be able to make it for the first time this year); and Karen’s part in Parkland Theatre’s Weekend of One Act Plays.

So now, you ones of readers out there, let me know in the comments of any performances coming up that I shouldn’t miss!

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:

*    *    *

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.


I’m back at school in Minneapolis and in the middle of setting a variety of goals (to run a 5K with my roommates Halloween weekend, to draft a dissertation chapter this month, and so on).  But my newest ambition is someday to write a book for which the following epigraph from the gospel of Douglas Adams would be appropriate:

The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases.

For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question, How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?

– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 35