The Little French English Improvement Project

little french person trying to improve her english, little french english person trying to improve herself, french english person trying to improve a little bit… and blogging along the way. (Now in Deutschland)

Posts Tagged ‘books’

Quote… unquote.

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on February 6, 2012

There I was reading my book the other day when I saw this:

McLuhan, page 54 of Understanding media: “…as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism.”

Did you see it? I saw it. Hurray!  I am an educated woman. The sort who can notice a reference to Shakespeare in a modern text without a literature teacher having to point a chalky finger over her shoulder and leaving a little white mark on the page. It felt so good! I basked for a little while in the glowing warmth of self-satisfaction before realising how pathetic I was. Not only was this a reference to the most famous speech in Shakespeare’s most famous work, but the only reason I knew it is because one day in school I just randomly decided to learn said speech off by heart. Did I do so in order to be a more refined, educated person? No. I wanted to show off. How unscholarly. What’s more, if McLuhan did just happily pepper his book with quotations, Shakespearian or otherwise, he surely hadn’t limited himself to one from Hamlet on page 54. I had spotted one; how many had I missed? It would seem after all I am not the sort of person capable of floating from one text to the next in what the French call transtextualité.

So I wonder: how do the other people do it? You know when you listen to the radio or watch politicians on TV. There they all are, debating away when all of a sudden it happens: one of them says something and pauses. Just a second. The rest nod with knowing glances and smile and you know. You just know you’ve missed out on something. You look around nervously. Did the other people in the room get it? Ears peeled you listen and hear a ripple flowing through the BBC radio 4 audience. Did they really get it? Or are they just trying to sound clever? It could just be some obscure reference but all of a sudden, doubt creeps in: could it have been obvious? Are you the only one who doesn’t know? Often a benevolent chairman will kindly clear things up as subtly as they can: “Mr. N., you were just quoting Voltaire I believe… would you say his opinions on Utopia are still…”. And they always get it right.

But HOW? I mean surely they can’t know ahead of time what their panel might come up with. How can they keep in mind everything every politician has said over the past eight years, and everything every second politician has said during the eight years before that? Not to mention every passage from every significant book and article ever written. Some even manage to fit in a couple of pop culture references in there too, before conjuring up musicians, artists, filmmakers and figures from greek and norse mythology. And this database grows daily; with the media capturing every minute of everything, everyone is given the chance to speak out and have their dose of nonsense filed into the global archive. How do chairmen and women keep up?

Do they have the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford Companion to literature digitalized and saved in their brains in zeroes and ones, and maybe a live connection to ever-growing wikipedia, wikiquote, wiktionary etc?

Or maybe I’m just stupid.


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Oooh look! Grammar…

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on January 20, 2011

Like oh-so-many people, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship thing going on with grammar, and german grammar in particular. I mentioned a few days ago that Mark Twain called it the “awful language”, partly because of its strange and mind-boggling syntax. I still haven’t read the rest of his essay, but I like to imagine it like a metaphorical summary execution, each rule being dragged out of the dark recesses of a grammar book, into the light, exposed to everyone’s view and shot down. Aaaah, if only someone could do that with Russian genitives…

looking for the local tribes in the German library

But I’m missing the point really, because although I could kill a prepositional verb right now, as well as the person who turned up with the idea of declensions, in fact I really love grammar. I love observing it, and as with most things pertaining to language, I think it’s a wonderful invention. I personally am definitely not a grammarian: I don’t like putting labels on things and saying : “This is the way this should be” or “that should happen in such and such a way because that’s the way it is and otherwise it would be wrong”, just in the same way that I hate it when people put their pre-conceived set ideas on my and label me as “nice”, “boring”, “french”… Some people go through languages with a magnifying glass, a butterfly net and a pair of tweezers, ready to catch a grammar rule, pin it down onto a page and pull it apart under the microscope. I’m much more of an explorer: I travel through the world of languages with my backpack and a safari hat, taking a few notes, and trying to get used to the strange customs of the native compound-adjective tribes. And the populations of these heathen lands are both fierce and shy. I had to circle around the declension village about ten times before I could even get close, and even today some of the little guys won’t come out of their hiding place.

I honestly do get a little thrill of joy when I find out something in the way a language works which cries out loud: I am somehow related to such and such another language. I get pangs of recognition, sometimes, in Russian or German, and I go: but that’s just how it works in English, or I wonder if that’s related to the way they say that in spanish… I get all flustered and most people think I’m crazy, but I just love it. In fact, I’ve long since figured out that’s the only way to understand a language.  By observing it in situ. All those guys with their butterfly nets and their glass boxes haven’t understood a thing, and this is probably why there are so many display cases hopelessly labelled: Exceptions

So basically I love grammar, I just don’t like studying it. Am I a linguist then or am I not?

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Aaaaahhh. Books!

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on November 16, 2010

I don’t know if I have mentioned it yet, but I have a little part-time job at the German Department University Library. Officially it’s only five hours a week, but I like to do a couple of unpaid extra hours every now and again: five hours a week is really not enough for people to find, borrow and read all they want.

But I also have a secret reason to spend as much time as possible in this library. Do you want me to tell you what this secret is? Well never mind if you don’t, here it comes: I luuuurve books. I just adore them. Ever since I was a child I have loved reading. When I was in collège (between 11 and 15 years old) I would borrow a couple of books first thing in the morning, even before lessons started and read them during break-times. Even during lessons; while other pupils were sneakily showing off their new mobile phones and quietly texting to each other across the classroom, I was hiding a novel behind my desk and every time someone got interrogated by the teacher or photocopies were being passed around, I would quickly read a couple of pages. Then, in the evening, I would bounce out of my classroom and run to the library to hand back the books from that same morning and borrow more to keep me going until the following day. Basically, I was mad. When I left the school, the librarian gave me my file. It still lies somewhere in my room, a list of all the books I borrowed during those four years. Impressive, if I do say so myself…

Book! Photo by PoPville flickr user BrennaLM

I have changed a little since then, and I like to think that nowadays my life does not revolve exclusively around books and words, but who am I kidding? I study languages, have a job in a library, and the first thing I do whenever I move somewhere is decide where the bookshelf is going to be and how it will be organised. And although I have other passions, like singing, cooking, karate, travelling…, I very quickly search for books that are relevant to the subject. When I first started karate, I bought Le karaté pratique by Roland Habersetzer; I regularly write down all the songs I know in a notebook and then spend evenings pouring over it going through them all in my head, and the first item on my Christmas wish list is a vintage first edition of the Larousse Gastronomique (1938), the same one which features in Red Dragon, and Julie and Julia. Did I say I had changed? Maybe not after all.

And I do not know whether my love of books led me to loving words and paper, or whether my love of paper and words combined to make me love books. It’s the whole egg and hen cycle, I personally haven’t a clue which came first, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. It just means that when I see a box in the German library which says “To give away”, my heart jumps to my throat and my hands start trembling with excitement. And when I see one of the books to give away is a German atlas from 1933, I can’t help it. It doesn’t matter if I never open it ever again and it just sits on a shelf until I move to someplace else and pack it away in a cardboard box, it is definitely going to my personal library. And the fact someone has been using it as a flower press makes it all the more interesting. I wonder when those flowers were picked. Could it have been under the Nazi rule, during the second world war? In Germany, in Paris, somewhere entirely different (there are scribbles in polish on a bookmark)…? And it has the smell. You know what I am talking about. That smell, the smell of old books… I once heard on a television programme (my friends and family will know I am talking about QI of course) that the mould in books is in fact hallucinogenic in high amounts. Well this is my drug.

Mind you, I get a similar effect when I smell a brand new book fresh from the press, too! GOing into a bookshop and coming out with shiny new books has something exhilarating too. Just today a leaflet arrived, addressed to the “Librarian” of the German department, advertising the publications of Routledge Language Learning Reference Books 2010 and I just had to add a few more items to my Christmas wish list (which is growing daily). How can you resist when you see titles like: The Routledge Concise Compendium of the World’s Languages, with “provision of IPA symbol grids arranged by articulatory feature and by alphabetic resemblance to facilitate use of the new phonology sections”, and “classification by genetic relationship of all languages covered (111)”. How can you resist that? Another tempting item was The Routledge Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets, with its “enhanced introduction discussing the basic principles and strategies utilised by world writing systems. Phwoaarrr… And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, I closed the leaflet and spotted on the back an advert for the second edition of the Atlas of the World’s Languages! £450.00 though. I might have to wait until the third or fourth edition comes out… But one day, one day I will have those books. In my future house there will be an entire room devoted to reading, with comfy chairs and a thick carpet (maybe a fireplace too), and so many books! I can’t wait!

PS: nothing to do with the rest of the article, but I thought I would share this gem of an anecdote with someone. This morning as I was buying my customary Tuesday Ham and Brie sandwich from the Boulangerie, a man burst in and said:

“Que Dieu vous donne la vue, et du poil au cul! “(May god bless you with good eyesight and a***hair). Food for thought.

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♪♫Let it rain. Let it rain, let it rain…

Posted by Alice Challet - alicethefrog on October 17, 2010

A not very inspired title for a not very inspiring day. It’s raining.

It isn’t even the sort of rain which makes you shiver and thank whoever’s up there that you are inside by the fireplace with a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit. I will be having tea and biscuits, but it just won’t help: it’s too grey and too wet and too cold out there. The only thing left to do in the world is to curl up in a blanket somewhere warm, and sleep. Anyway, forget about rain: why can’t all autumn days be crisp and sunny and windy with prettily coloured leaves blowing all over place in a golden slanting light piercing through the branches? WHY? Ok, it has to rain, otherwise it would not be autumn. Fair enough, why can’t it rain exclusively at night? Or in showers, so at least we could enjoy a couple of rainbows every now and again.

But there we are. Outside it is now so foggy I cannot see the massive limetree at the end of the garden, the heating is on full blast and every single radiator in the house is festooned with various bits of clothing and lingerie in a desperate race to get  everything dry before we all go back to Uni for the week. Officially, there is a washing machine in our flat in Clermont-Ferrand, but I don’t dare use it for fear the walls might start shaking and the biblical floods come forth and drown us all. There is enough water outside already, no need for my soapy contribution. I went to the garden yesterday, just for the sake of going out into the wide wet world, and all the way there was like walking on a saturated sponge. I also had a moment of stepping back into childhood as I stood in a puddle with my wellies, listening to the sound of raindrops falling on my head and thinking : “My feet aren’t wet!”

So anyway, not a very good day for going out and finding chestnuts for the chestnuts and cider evening in a couple of weeks, which is what I had planned for today. As a result I suppose I’ll have to read more of this stupid book. Funny how things turn out. Now if any of you have read my previous two posts, you might be wondering: Does this girl’s entire course really revolve around reading this one bloody book? No it doesn’t. As a matter of fact, I get all sorts of homework, I have just been very good and organised this week, so the only homework I have left is reading this one bloody book. I’m sure it’s very good; I have been told it is a very thought provoking, controversial masterpiece of a book, criticising post-war Germany in a way which was also foretold modern evolution of society… But I just have great difficulty getting into it.  I read a dozen pages yesterday afternoon (which I will have to go through again later, armed with a dictionary this time). I used to gobble up a dozen books a day! How low the not-so-mighty-anyway have fallen! Never mind. Look on the positive side, today is a glum day so maybe it is really the perfect weather for reading a glum book about a man who wanders around wondering “what was it all for?” and ends up killing himself…

Looking forward to going back into town tomorrow. The weather will still be bad but at least there’s lessons and training to look forward to. In the meantime, time for lunch (stuffed tomatoes, yummy!)

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