Resisting obligation

So I am going to be in London this weekend, which is the closing weekend of the British Museum’s massive Celts exhibit. I haven’t seen it, and it seems like the kind of thing I should … but I am not gonna.

I’m just … tired. Not necessarily overworked, but overstretched with some of the projects I am currently in the middle of. And I am sure (if there are even tickets left) that it would be great, but it would be mobbed and I would not find it relaxing.

Ridiculously, I sort of feel like I am failing by not going, but long experience has taught me that that is actually a pretty good sign I should not be..

That does not mean I am not going to do anything bloggy in London, so watch this space.

Resisting obligation

Shopping spree!

One of the regular events in my life as an inveterate cheap-book fiend is the sale at the Cambridge University Press bookshop. Today I was in town and I noticed it was on again, so in I went. Paperbacks are £3 and hardbacks are £7, which doesn’t sound like that great a deal until you think about how much academic books typically cost. Some of them are a bit dinged up or missing their dust jackets or whatever, but you can usually find good copies.


Anyway, I got some things I wanted at good prices, so that was good.

But the thing that really interests me about the sale is … it’s like a field full of rabbit holes. You’re looking at a shelf full of books, and you’ll see something like this:


Notes on Household Taste? Music from the Tang Court? Disability in the Orroman Arab World, 1500-1800? Ungulate Management in Europe? There was a book in there called “Defending the Correspondence Model of Truth.” I didn’t know it was under attack! Shit, I don’t even know what it is. There are a hundred opportunities to go off down some wild tangent on some topic that not only did I know nothing about, I didn’t even know existed.

Shopping spree!

Further self-justification for book collecting

As I have probably mentioned before, I have a tendency to collect neat stuff without any obvious use for it — I like replicas of historical documents, for instance, and people who buy me gifts also know that I like them. After acquiring it, I look for a chance to do something with it, but it doesn’t always come up. And now I have tutoring students who are studying WWII.


Glory Hallelujah.

Further self-justification for book collecting

Life is weird

So, one of the ways I like to teach my students about history is through little roleplaying exercises. For instance, today we’re doing the Black Death, so I started out by asking them to imagine that they were physicians or members of a city government in 1348. I told them about the symptoms of this strange new disease and asked them to suggest its possible causes and some solutions we might use.

It took some people a little while to get into character.

Me: So what could be causing this illness?

Student: It’s fleas.

Me: What are you talking about? How could fleas spread a disease?

Student: Well, the bacteria …

Me: The what? Stop making up words!

Student (getting it): Maybe God is angry with us?

Me: Oooh! Good point, that could totally be it.

And that is how I wound up writing a list headed SOLUTIONS on the whiteboard, beneath which I wrote in a fine, clear hand in green dry-erase marker KILL THE JEWS. I have to tell you, that is not how I envisioned spending ten seconds of my life at any point, but I can’t deny it’s relevant. We actually had a pretty good brief discussion about medieval European antisemitism and, basically, what the hell that was all about, sparked by a student question. So in the end it was a good thing, but definitely a weird and awkward one.


Life is weird

Movie Monday: A Little Chaos (2014)


As I mentioned in my previous post, I thought I’d take a look at 2014’s A Little Chaos, a film about, of all things, the creation of the gardens of Versailles directed by the late Alan Rickman.

During my MA I did some stuff on the history of gardening, formal and landscape, but it’s been a long time since I gave it any thought. There was a time when gardens were an important way of communicating something about their patrons; these days not so much, but one could draw analogies, I’m sure. They were also displays of military might, which is kind of a weird concept — but organised large-scale construction and earth-moving played a big role in warfare in the 17th century. Parts of the gardens of Versailles were, in fact, built by units of the French army.

Aaaanyway, Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) is the irrepressible innovator of the gardening world, while Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) represents the establishment. He hires her to work on Versailles despite her controversial designs, there’s lots of scenery-porn, Maria Theresa dies, Sabine has a tragic backstory, they begin to fall in love, etc., etc. He has a wife but it’s OK because she’s a dreadful woman. The King takes a personal interest in her because, being Alan Rickman, he’s a man of great soul instead of a Protestant-hating tyrant. And Andre Le Notre’s not 60 or whatever.

Good performances, of course; Stanley Tucci is fun as the Duc d’Orleans, Rickman is great, etc., etc. He doesn’t actually have a huge part, but he gives it plenty of the ol’ gravitas.

It’s not a very … satisfying … film, other than visually. It’s got all the sort of thing you would expect in a film about that place and time, with the hats and the dresses and the wigs and the big engineering works and lots and lots of plants. But as to narrative tension, not a huge amount.

What they’ve done with the history is interesting — the idea that gardening is culturally and politically relevant could do with a little more emphasis, perhaps, and of course Sabine de Barra herself is a fictional character, and somehow it all makes the whole thing seem a little … diffuse. It has a lot of historical stuff in it, but its relationship to its historical context is not always clear. I think the 17th-century building site is actually the most interesting part of the whole thing, just because of all its little details.

Also Kate Winslet gets soaked in a downpour and falls in a body of water, because of course she does.

It’s reasonably diverting, it’s got lots of good performances and it’s on UK Netflix; I’m not sure it necessarily carries a lot of weight as a historical film other than the usual pageantry, but I still enjoyed it.

I am really hoping to see Dragon Blade, speaking of weight as a historical film.

Movie Monday: A Little Chaos (2014)

Cheap book “problem” not actual problem

It’s only been over the last few years that I’ve started to admit this to myself: I have an acquisitive nature. I’d been denying it for a long time because I’m not by nature a collector. I seldom care about having the complete set of something, and when I do it’s usually just by way of a mild curiosity. I will pick up the issues of the Wagner/Grant/Breyfogle Detective Comics run that I’m missing, but I won’t pay a lot for them or go very far out of my way.

What this means is that my bookshelves have a certain magpie’s-nest quality about them. I suppose this relates in a way to what I was saying the other day about being a fox rather than a hedgehog.

I often feel guilty because I buy books faster than I can read them — or rather, I binge-buy cheap books (I am frugal in this as in all things) but can’t read eight of them at once, so some of them just never get looked at.

However, this has its upsides, too: for instance, with the news of Alan Rickman’s passing, I thought I’d try to watch his film A Little Chaos for next week’s Movie Monday, only I don’t know much about the historical period it’s set in. Then I realised I own a book on landscape gardening in 17th-century France. Bought it about 10 years ago, never read it other than to look at some of the pretty pictures, and have carried it through like five house moves. And now, finally, my foresight is rewarded.


Cheap book “problem” not actual problem