I grew up on a cattle ranch in Texas. When I was young, my world was made up of the long grass of coastal fields, the languid movements of cattle, and the shadows cast by towering pines. Growing up in such an isolated environment, I learned to embrace the wider world available to me in books.

Carolyn Purnell

Carolyn Purnell

I became a historian because I thought I hated history. My history classes in high school were less than riveting, so during my first semester of college, I took a course on the French Enlightenment to get my history requirement out of the way. We see how that turned out…

I taught myself French through reading. This might sound impressive, but it was much less so, considering the fact that when I moved to Paris for my doctoral research, I spoke eighteenth-century French with a miserable accent. I didn’t have the vocabulary to ask for a toothbrush, but I could request a carriage—posthaste! 

I have a cabinet of curiosities. People in the past often collected objects that gave them a sense of wonder, and I think that having more wonder in one’s life is a splendid idea. My cabinet contains a mixture of manmade items and natural history specimens, all of which make me smile.  

I adore animals. At age eight, I received a pet guinea pig that I named after Mark Twain. Wanting to give him due dignity, I insisted that everyone refer to him by his full name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens Purnell. Now, many years later, I have three dogs, and I volunteer at a local animal rescue.

I tend to write like I talk, so I often read my drafts aloud to see how they sound. That said, I much prefer written communication because I have the opportunity to edit. Being a teacher has forced me to become more comfortable articulating my ideas on the spot.

In college, I studied abroad in England, and I have longed to move back ever since. I probably shouldn’t reveal this since it might send my loved ones into a panic, but I suspect that they already had an inkling.

Lately, my passion for music has given way to an obsession with podcasts. For much of my life, I have been a dedicated follower of music. I have eclectic taste, ranging from soul to shoegaze and everything in between. But in the last year, I have been filling my idle hours with podcasts, especially true crime shows and the Gimlet Media back-catalog.  

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. But if you ever want to tempt me, I have a weakness for kouign-amann, a Breton pastry loaded with butter.

In my free time, I read fiction. As a historian, I obviously love nonfiction, but I can no longer read it for fun. If forced to choose, my favorite writers are D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, and Denis Diderot, but I read widely and don’t believe in the concept of “guilty pleasure.” This is probably how I’ve found gems like The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1828).