Friday, November 30, 2012

Current Work Setup

MS photo on the iPad. Transcribing into Mellel on the laptop. Empty board room table.

View of Independence Hall and the Second National Bank.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Teaching Images

A secondary concern during my recent trip to the the Bodley was to update my set of teaching images.

Images that show how the book is constructed...

... and destructed and repaired.

Traces of past readers and annotators:

And some images from the Meshal ha-Kadmoni, useful for talking about that text and about framed tales and animal fables more generally:

This last image is particularly great since I frequently have students read this article and the tales to which it refers.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Getting Better at Photographing Impossible MSS

First day:

Later in the week:

Dropped the ISO. Fiddled with the white balance. Upped the image resolution. Just got generally more dextrous with the MS and how to position it and myself relative to it. Still feel like I'm wrestling with the machine with respect to metering for light.

Doesn't change that the page is still a mess, though.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bodleian Library Promise: Update

I went to renew my reader's card today, and it turns out that the fellow who had processed my first request had been remiss in not asking me to read it aloud in addition to signing it. I asked the woman who processed this set of paperwork (yes, you do have to fill out the forms again!) whether they no longer required it to be read aloud, she confirmed that they do and asked me if I wanted to. I very much did.

And thanks to Dame Eleanor, I knew to look for the stack of cards with the promise translated into all sorts of other languages:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


The novelist Nick Hornby writes a column for The Believer in which he chronicles his battle to read all of the books he buys in any given month. I read the columns when they come out collected in book form. My literary tastes rarely jive with Hornby's but I love how he writes about literature, so I read far more for the criticism than for the recommendations.

In June of 2010, Hornby finished reading Austerity Britain by David Kynaston, and in writing about it in a column that would be collected in More Baths, Less Talking, he offered such a kind and charitable insight into the private intellectual life of the historian that it, in and of itself, made the book worthwhile:
"At one point Kynaston quotes a 1948 press release from the chairman of Hoover, and addis in a helpful parenthetical that it was 'probably written for him by a young Muriel Spark.'* The joy that extra information brings is undeniable, but, once you get to know Kynaston, you will come to recognize the pain and frustration hidden in that word probably: how many hours of his life, you wonder, were spent trying to remove it?"
That's sort of what I'm up to this week: Trying to remove the probably from a manuscript conundrum in which I've become mired. I'm working with a manuscript in the US that has a funny owner's mark. So far, the only part that's legible to me (and more than a few really serious manuscript people) is the patronymic: Son of Menachem. Although marginal (in the literal and figurative sense), knowing who he was is probably important to my project. So while I was mainly coming to Oxford for a different reason, namely to collate a few letters from one of my translators to friends and relatives, I decided to take some hours to look up every Menachem and Son of Menachem listed as book owners, sale witnesses or scribes in the Hebraica catalogue and go through them systematically to see if any manuscript with that name bore the same mark.

None of these is it. Neither is any of the seventeen other manuscripts now owned by the Bodleian, previously owned by some guys called Menachem.

It was a long shot. I went in knowing that it probably wouldn't pan out. And in fact it didn't. But there was that probably again, and I had to face it down.

*Hornby's inexplicable literary crush on Muriel Spark is kind of a running joke theme of the columns collected in this most recent volume.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Magic Card

My Bodley reader's card apparently gets me in everywhere I want to go.

I visited Magadlen College (pronounced the way it is because it is spelled "Maudelayne" in the college charter, I learned from the little pamphlet) after finishing in the library on Saturday afternoon. I went to check in at the Porter's Lodge as all visitors, even those who can get in for free, are required to do. I knew that Bodley card holders were in that category of visitors. When I showed my card, the porter said, "Well, Sarah, you have the magic card. Go right ahead." The Received Pronunciation and the very nice touch of noticing my name on the card and using it had me just about bowled over. Calling it the magic card was just the icing on the cake.

Today I tried to nip in to see the picturesque parts of the Bodley after lunch (at a café recommended -- and rightly so -- by a colleague) since they've moved special collections to the windowless basement of the science library in preparation for restoration works in the New Bodley that are expected to last through 2015. I was met by a stand of tourist information with posted tour times. I hadn't even thought to ask if you had to take a tour. I went to the ticket booth to get more information (since I couldn't wait around for the next one — too much to actually do in the library!) and just in the course of conversation with the nice woman there, I mentioned that as an academic, I sort of forget that you can't always just go noodling around. She asked me if I had a reader's card, told me I could get in with that, and gave me a map! I ran into her again at the end when I hadn't worked up the courage to try to get the guard to let me into the divinity school, and she said, gesturing at my card, "Oh, with that, you can get in any time with up to four guests."

The magic card, indeed.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Technological Failure

I'm having some serious issues with bandwidth and credentialing, both of which are adding up to make it impossible for me to upload photos. Since all of my Oxford posts, be they about the library or the wandering around outside the library, are going to be photo-heavy, I'm writing them now and waiting until I get back to upload the photos and post the posts. Bear with me, and a bunch of compelling, if back-dated posts will appear next week.

Update 7 Nov.: I'm able to upload some pictures now, but I can't work through the whole backlog now so they won't all be posted until I get back.


The library was closed today, so I decided that, despite the cold and the rain, I would go visit Coventry and see the ruins of the cathedral that were left just as they were when the fires were put out after the bombing in 1940.

There are, in fact, the ruins of two churches in the center of the city. One is an active archaeological site where they are excavating a church and priory that were razed after the English civil war. They've done the displays quite well; for example, they marked where the walls of the original cloister would have been with very simple, new, modern, tree-lined walls; and they've exposed the original architecture within the setting of the city:

The main thing, of course, though, is not this cathedral, but the other one:

 They have inscribed the words Father, Forgive in gilt lettering behind what used to be the altar. Above it is a replica of what was left of the cross after the blaze was extinguished; the original is in the new cathedral.

I love the aesthetics of sacred architecture, but I'm not a moved-to-tears type; I don't need the fingers of even one hand to count the places that have so moved me. But in such a place, a medieval cathedral open to the sky and the elements and with the weight of the whole twentieth century pushing in on you from all sides like the deep, what do you do but stand, and weep, and pray?

The narrative on the signs and in the flyers pitches this as a "site of peace and reconciliation." I can see the first, but I'm not sure I see this as a monument to reconciliation. To forgiving and never forgetting, perhaps. But a monument to reconciliation, even if that reconciliation has indeed been achieved? No. This is something else.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Lewis and Lewis in Oxford

Walking through Oxford makes C.S. Lewis' life and writing that much more vivid. His rooms were in this building in Magadalen College:

And you start to realize that of course you could walk through a wardrobe and straight into Narnia when you haunt a town on the edge of a wood with little chairs cut into the fallen trees and where Mr. Tumnus is at your shoulder when you walk out the door:

Since it had been on my list for a while, this finally seemed like the moment to start reading Lewis' Space Trilogy. It's lovely. The Chronicle of Higher Ed. had billed it as an academic novel, but I think that's rather missing the point. It's not an academic roman-a-clef a-la David Lodge's Campus Trilogy or Alexander McCall Smith's 2.5 Pillars of Wisdom Trilogy (which is about to become, as Douglas Adams had it with the Hitchhikers' Guide books, an increasingly-incorrectly-named trilogy). It's satire, sure, but it's more pitch-perfect. It's sympathetic. It's more about the passions that grow out of the intellectual endeavor than the petty squabbles over imagined territory. (Of course, in a work of science fiction that deals with space travel, that theme can't help but be writ large; Lewis handles it with a very light touch, though.) Well worth a read.

Among the guiltiest of my pleasures is watching Inspector Lewis on PBS, a really well-done police procedural/murder mystery series set in Oxford. I didn't set out to do the Morse/Lewis tour of town (though apparently there are a variety of options), but it's been fun to stumble into some of the places I recognize.

A colleague recommended some lunch spots, and the first day I was here, I walked into one, The Vault and Garden, and realized I recognized it as the cafe where Hathaway inadvertently drank the poisoned coffee in "The Gift of Promise":

I did make a point, though, of visiting the gallery in the Ashmolean where Lewis and Hathaway interview Philip in "And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea":

Friday, November 2, 2012

Bodleian Library Promise

I was a little disappointed that I only had to sign this declaration, not read it aloud as well. It may look silly, but it's surprisingly heady:
"I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the lIbrary; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Gargoyles and Graffiti

I'm in Oxford. I arrived too late in the day to get started in the Bodleian Library, so I applied for my reader's card and then meant to go to the Ashmolean Museum.

I got sidetracked by the 13th-century university cathedral. The cathedral is under renovation right now, but the tower is open to visitors, so I enthusiastically went up. I always get about halfway up these medieval church towers and then remember how much I hate trying to get back down the spiral staircases that are wide enough for just one person and that don't have a consistent height of step riser. No point in not finishing the climb at that point, though, and truly, the views are always worth it.

From the top, the gargoyles and other façade statues are so close up, too!

Of all of these, the only true gargoyle, of course, is the one on the left in this picture, the one that functions as a drainpipe.

Check out the date on this graffito (click to enlarge if you need) that was carved into the walkway at the top of the tower (which was also only big enough for one person at any point, leading to lots of shuffling around and sinking back into recesses in the façade to let people pass. Just walking around, I'm very aware that yes, I went to college with lots of Gothic architecture and that my university was already 63 years in existence when this student or penitent or priest carved his name here, but those buildings are neo-Gothic and from 19th century, largely not the original buildings of the university. (I suppose it's like Oriel College tearing down its 13th-century buildings in the 16th, just on a vaster scale). It really does feel different:

Oh, and just to prove that I really was there:

I did eventually get over to the Ashmolean, about two hours before closing, so I really had to race through. I hope I have a chance to go back this trip to see it at a more leisurely pace; if not, it'll definitely be on my list of places to visit on a future trip. I was very impressed by the narrative of the museum and the ways in which it is reinforced visually. They've really tried to integrate their European and Oriental collections along a sort of Mediterranean crossroads theme-line. There is a lot of glass in the fabric of the building, and it's used very effectively in support of that narrative. For example, standing in the Islamic Middle East gallery, you can see up into the study gallery for European ceramics and from that vantage point, you see through a window that backs onto the Valencia Lusterware (based, of course, on Islamic glazing techniques). A highlight of the Islamic collection (which houses pieces that are just out of this world in terms of their quality) for me was a pair of doors that T.E. Lawrence acquired in Jeddah and installed outside of his swimming pool in Dorset. I also enjoyed seeing an elaborate 16th-century puzzle box made out of olive wood in the shape of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I also got to visit a special exhibition on the natural history illustrations of Edward Lear, he of the nonsense verse. He was very skilled and I was blown away by his paintings, but it was a bit odd that the curators really didn't try to connect his illustration of strange and wondrous creatures with his later career in nonsensery. Instead, they just plunked a few of the nonsense books at the end. And finally, they have the original collection, the contents of a seventeenth-century curio cabinet, with which Elias Ashmole founded the museum. It was especially effective because it showed the very early roots of the museum's balance between art and anthropology.

I'll be in the library as of tomorrow morning. Brace yourselves for copious manuscript photos to come.