A monk and his cat: Pangur Bán

In my class on the History of Books and Libraries, we were recently introduced to this fun 9th century Irish poem. My own cat and I are amused.

The cat’s name, Pangur Bán, is a little tricky to decode. “Bán” means “white,” and “Pangur” seems to have been a common name for cats (maybe like Felix) that may mean “Fuller” (as in fulling cloth: beating it to remove dirt and impurities — like how cats knead blankets?).

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Translation by Robin Flower

1915 physical fitness standards: Do you measure up?

While scanning old newspapers for the library, I came across this Monrovia Daily News article from August 23, 1915. The University of California announced its standards for its incoming freshmen in terms of their physical fitness and abilities. But it’s more than being fit — the word “moral” appears throughout the article, and it is emphasized as if obvious that being physically fit leads to moral fiber as well. Wow!

At any rate, I was amused to discover that the *only* items on the list that I would be able to perform are two of the swimming ones: to swim 50 yards (note there is no time limit specified) and to dive from a height of five feet. The others are well beyond my physical ability.

On the other hand, if they had been imposed as requirements at some point, maybe I would have worked to achieve them!

So, do you measure up? Can you imagine if this were required of freshmen today?

Beginnings of writing and libraries

My class on the History of Books and Libraries started off with a tour of ancient writing systems and libraries. We covered a wealth of fascinating content. For example, it had never occurred to me that the Lascaux cave paintings were three-dimensional, since they were painted onto irregular cave walls! I’d only ever seen flat-looking 2D pictures like the one at right. Today you can visit the Lascaux cave paintings in 3D through the magic of the Internet. Do it! I sat there enthralled as I floated through the twisty little passages and came away with an entirely different sense of this early artwork. “Early” is an understatement. The paintings are estimated to be 17,000 years old!

I also learned that cuneiform tables had a 3D aspect not only in their wedge-shaped impressions but because, as chunks of clay, they were rather thick, and scribes took advantage of this to write on all sides, including the edges. Browse all sides of real tablets yourself! (Now I want to make my own, maybe out of Play-doh.)

We discussed various writing systems, and you can browse several historical scripts as well as (quite curiously) constructed scripts, mainly for English, that replace our current alphabet. One of my favorites is Heptal (rendered at right). We also discussed boustrophedon, a word I will never again misspell.

Finally, we covered the ancient libraries at Nippur, Ur, Nineveh, and Alexandria. The library at Nineveh was the creation of Ashurbanipal and grew to contain 30,000 clay tablets, with a complex indexing system and integrated book curses. My assignment for this week was to create a “learning activity” about Ashurbanipal and his library.

Dare you take my quiz? Will you earn yourself Ashurbanipal’s admiration or his scorn?

Was Watson a woman?

The question is ill-formed, since Watson never existed outside of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s pages, which clearly indicate that he was a man. And yet… and yet… this tongue-in-cheek analysis of Watson’s gender is so delightfully entertaining that who cares whether the question makes sense? Read on. Read the case to support the claim that Watson was a woman.

P.S. I learned from this talk that there are a total of 60 Sherlock stories. What! I must have missed some of them. Time to go a-hunting.

Discovering the Lusitania in Monrovia

How must it have felt to open up your newspaper and find this headline:

That’s just what must have happened on Friday, May 7, 1915. I came across this newspaper today while working my way through old newspapers on microfilm at the library. This article has more the feel of rumor than news; the sinking had probably happened only hours before they went to print, and as they note, casualty reports are conflicting, “one dispatch saying that many were drowned, another that all were saved.” In reality, 1,198 of the almost 1,959 people onboard were lost.

It is one thing to read about historical events and analyze them though the misty depths of decades (or even a near-century). Lusitania’s demise, which counted 123 Americans amongst its dead, was a pivotal event that helped drag the U.S. into World War I. But it is strange how much more present, and visceral, the event seems in this snapshot, the then-dim understanding frozen in time.

I hadn’t realized that there were several warnings issued before the Lusitania’s departure, via telegrams to individuals and advertisements to the public in New York newspapers. 1,265 passengers disregarded or were ignorant of these warnings. The ship took “precautions,” but they did not avail against the German U-boat that dealt the fatal blow.

Also, this ship was freakin’ ginormous, and could almost be forgiven for feeling rather invulnerable given its superior speed (25 knots), despite the Titanic’s demise three years earlier.

Adding to the sense of surreal historical creepiness, the Monrovia Daily News article is immediately followed by this notice: “Tennis: The Monrovia high school tennis team will meet the covina team on the high school court tomorrow morning at 9 o’clock.” Other neighboring headlines are similarly mundane and local. Despite the event’s top billing on page one, I wonder how long it took for its significance to sink in. As I work my way through later papers in May 1915, I may find out.

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