Carolyn Purnell's Critical Reads

February 27th, 2017

Carolyn Purnell is a French historian who received her PhD from the University of Chicago. Recently, she visited the Co-op to discuss her new book, The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses. The books on her list have, in her words, "a decidedly French flavor, but they all offer insights, questions, and theories that are relevant to American life today." 

The first book, Selling Paris: Property and Commercial Culture in the Fin-de-Siècle Capital (2015), is by a University of Chicago alumna, Alexia M. Yates. Yates explains how real estate came to be considered as commercial objects during the rapid urban development of the late nineteenth century. Understanding how notions of property changed alongside the growth of capitalism in the late nineteenth century allows us to question our own assumptions about urban space, housing, and business. In Yates’ own words, “One of the concerns of this book is to explore the capacity of real property to resist or escape the homogenizing tendencies of capitalism.”

As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (2012) by Michael Saler begins in the late nineteenth century, when readers immersed themselves in Sherlock Holmes stories, and carries through Lovecraft and Tolkein. By looking closely at these fantasy worlds, Saler reveals how modernity invites new forms of escapism, and shows “how we can remain enchanted but not deluded in an age where fantasy and reality increasingly intertwine.” In our current media climate, where the lines between fact, fiction, reality, and fantasy are so often blurred, it seems worthwhile to consider how people in the past used their imaginations in socially and psychologically productive ways.  

The story of the Chevalier d’Eon is so strange, outlandish, and complex that it almost seems like fiction, but Gary Kates’ Monsieur d’Eon Is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade (1995) is all fact. D’Eon lived as a man for 49 years, during which he served as a spy, diplomat, and military officer. But for 33 years, d’Eon lived as a woman. This book explores all of d’Eon’s incredible adventures, while also investigating the ways in which the gender norms of the eighteenth century affected d’Eon’s life.  

One of my main interests as a historian is how seemingly mundane things actually have a great deal of historical power. Daniel Roche’s A History of Everyday Things: The Birth of Consumption in France, 1600-1800 (2000) shows precisely how the most basic goods—water, light, bread, and clothing—evolved in this period, ultimately making people in the modern world into “prisoners of objects.” I love this book because it takes basic aspects of daily life, like heating, and explains how and why they are socially and politically significant. I think it’s crucial that we don’t get so caught up in thinking critically about large-scale structures that we forget to question the basic components of our own lives. These aspects often contain some of our most long-standing assumptions as well as the greatest potential for change. 

Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses (1998) by Ian Hacking documents the historical case of the fugue, an illness that led certain individuals to travel obsessively, without knowing who they were or why they traveled. Aside from being a fascinating story, Hacking shows how closely medicine and psychology are bound to cultural factors like capitalism, war, work, policing, and the pressures of modern life. 

What critical reading list compiled by a French historian would be complete without Voltaire? If ever a man were known for being critical, in all senses of the word, it was Voltaire. With entries ranging from beauty to fate and from religion to love, The Philosophical Dictionary is full of reflections, questions, and musings that are still relevant to critical thought today. 

And finally, I’ve selected John Berger’s classic Ways of Seeing. Berger, who recently passed away, was a master at getting people to look at the world in new ways, and this book, derived in part from Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” invites readers to look at art, gender, and life in unexpected ways. In Berger’s words, “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”