Summer Reading


Brian W. Shaffer

The Charles R. Glover Chair of English Studies, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs

For the past 15 years I’ve taught 20th-century British literature, and primarily the novel, at the college. Of this work the text I’ve probably taught the most is Joseph Conrad’s enigmatic novella Heart of Darkness (1899). Published on the eve of the 20th century, this work — which details Marlow’s remembered experience of the rapacious ivory trade in the Belgian Congo and the larger-than-life character he encounters there, the horrific Kurtz — stands as a harbinger both of the bloody recent century and of the narrative complexity of literary modernist texts. Written in Conrad’s third language (Polish and French were his first and second), Heart of Darkness is a provocative and absorbing meditation on the nature of language, knowledge, the psyche, politics and empire.

While we’re on the subject of “great reads” that are also “classics,” my next recommendation is James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), a collection of 15 short stories set in the Irish metropolis at the turn of the 19th century. These stories take aim at Joyce’s Irish compatriots — and specifically at their self-destructive idealizations of the Irish family, state, religion and education system — which helped make Joyce unwelcome in Ireland in his own time. My view of this wry collection, which closes with the masterful “The Dead,” is a minority view but I’ll assert it anyway: The early Dubliners—and not Joyce’s more flamboyantly innovative later fiction — is his greatest contribution to Irish, and indeed world, literature.

If you are in the market for contemporary British writing, I recommend Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1988). The protagonist of this novel is Stevens, the chief butler of an English estate, who, from the vantage point of 1956, looks back at the heyday of his professional career at Darlington Hall in the politically turbulent 1920s and 1930s. The novel, which captured a Booker Prize for its Anglo-Japanese author, is at once a compelling if deceptive personal confession, a profound exploration of “emotional fascism” and a provocative examination of England’s nostalgic yearnings for an idealized past.

I’m partial to British and Irish writing, but also read and teach works from our side of the pond. One American novel that I recommend — it’s easily the funniest book I’ve ever read — is John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). Nietzsche said somewhere that “we have art so that we shall not die of reality.” This maxim proved untrue for the author of this novel, who took his own life in 1969 after numerous failed attempts to secure a publisher for his work. Set in New Orleans and tracing the antic adventures of its droll protagonist Ignatius Reilly, this posthumously published work was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Toole’s title derives from a witty line of fellow satirist Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

The next recommendation, which reflects my interest in the contemporary Middle East, is not a novel at all but reads like one. Michael B. Oren’s Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2002) is by far the best book on the Arab-Israeli conflict I have ever read. Oren, an Israeli, received his doctorate in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University. Balanced, elegantly written and suspenseful, the book, which nicely interweaves diplomatic and military perspectives as well as Middle Eastern and Cold War political contexts, calls upon recently declassified American, Russian, Israeli, Egyptian and British documents as well as the author’s first-hand interviews with key participants in the conflict from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Israel, the former Soviet Union, France and the U.S. Oren’s intriguing, massively researched study reveals the great extent to which events of the 1960s shaped present-day political predicaments in the Middle East.

Another work of non-fiction that is as absorbing as any novel is Frederic Spotts’ Bayreuth: A History of the Wagner Festival (Yale University Press, 1994). Richard Wagner founded an opera house and festival at Bayreuth, in Bavaria, in 1876. Almost 130 years later this controversial German festival is still running. Spotts, in his fascinating and well-written book, traces the history of this important cultural institution from its founding by Wagner, to its role as Hitler’s “court theatre” in the 1930s and early 1940s, to its contemporary life in the hands of Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang. At once a history of the Wagner festival (and the Wagner family that has controlled it since its inception) and a cultural and social history of Germany in the last century, Spotts’ study makes for compelling reading.

While we are on the subject of music, my final recommendation is a compact disc collection, The Complete Songs of Robert Burns. The late 18th-century Burns is to Scotland what Shakespeare is to England: her national bard. Burns’s sardonic, witty, earthy poetry, much of it composed in Scots, is justly celebrated; but the Scottish folk songs he composed or “improved” and then transcribed and collected, all of which are performed here, are equally great if less widely known. This 12-disc set, released on the Linn label between 1996 and 2002, features simple yet artful arrangements and settings of all of Burns’ songs, performed by the leading figures in Scottish traditional music today. The result is pure musical bliss.

A. Victor Coonin

Professor of Art

At first I was thrilled to compile a book list for Rhodes magazine. Then panic crept in. I thought of recommending summer reading by favorite authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Italo Calvino or even J.K. Rowling. But the list kept changing from day to day and book to book. I soon realized that there are some books we keep on the shelf because they give us the satisfaction of having been read and others that we reach for repeatedly. The latter selections might not be classified as great literature, but they are part of an indispensable library that has value, and that, in my case, doesn’t seem to change much with taste or fashion or my mood swings. So these are the books I decided to feature in this list. Nothing that follows is particularly suitable for reading at the beach while sipping a piña colada. But perhaps at that perfectly ordinary moment when you need the perfect source you’ll recall something from this list to enhance your summer.

To begin, an academic must constantly reach for sources of fact and clarification, and my home library has the predictable dictionary, thesaurus, atlas, almanac and encyclopedia. But special mention goes to An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton, which shows how the English language can be an elegant and humorous means of communication where it is perfectly fine to refer to a “murder of crows” or an “illusion of painters.” For non-word games, Hoyle’s Rules of Games has settled many a friendly dispute (backgammon dice are treated individually) and a few unfriendly ones (a flush beats a straight), just as Robert’s Rules of Order is the ultimate arbiter of procedural disputes (a 2/3 vote will end the debate of a “brew of scholars”).

For relaxation, I enjoy woodworking and home improvement projects. Fine Woodworking provides monthly inspiration of craftsmanship and for the more banal I constantly reach for the old Home Depot ProBook to confirm that ¾-inch threaded pipe comes in a 6-foot length before making that third run to the hardware store. For activities in the home and garden I highly recommend perusing Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles: Amusing and Useful Techniques for Nontoxic Housekeeping and Gardening. The title is accurate and I can assure you my garden slugs die a relatively merciful death drowning in old beer.

On matters of health (pretty good) and wealth (I’m a college professor), we must all be engaged like never before. For things financial, a fascinating yearly read is the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Report, wherein Warren Buffet dispenses his wisdom in sensible layman’s terms. My bible for investing remains The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham, which teaches how to be the tortoise, not the hare. On the serious matter of health, I read the monthly Berkeley Wellness Letter and reach regularly for the Merck Manual of Medical Information to better understand health issues. When taking a prescription drug always consult the Physicians’ Desk Reference.

Periodicals have increasingly become essential reading in my home. For regular reading pleasure and timely feature articles, there is no better periodical than The New Yorker, especially the movie reviews by Anthony Lane. To keep up with the latest trends in technology and undergraduate techno-speak I read Wired magazine, indispensable as a way to stay in the loop. Most of what I read in my own field I could hardly recommend lightly, but I like The Art Newspaper for an international perspective on the arts, and the regular art reviews in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Special mention, however, goes to a book, The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari. Written in the 16th century, this timeless read covers all the famous names of the Renaissance including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael by a man who was actually there in the thick of all that genius.

Finally, it bears noting that many of the books I’ve mentioned are available in electronic format and perhaps one day all of these resources will fit neatly inside an iPod. I mention this with some hesitation, if not trepidation, since I don’t mind retrieving information from electronic media but I loathe the thought of reading for pleasure off a backlit screen and the rustle of a turning page being replaced by an electronic hum. So go get sawdust in your Fine Woodworking, dirt in your Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles and beach sand in everything else. And do it while you still can.

Mary Miller

Assistant Professor of Biology

The top book on my list of “must reads” gives a very entertaining view of the human condition in light of the fully sequenced human genome. This approachable and informative book is Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. Ridley takes us through one human chromosome in each chapter, capturing our imagination and addressing almost every aspect of our existence in the process. This is great airport reading, and can spark some interesting conversations with your fellow travelers. Though I have not finished it yet, Ridley’s Nature via Nurture is shaping up to be an interesting read as well. He seems to present a well-balanced argument about the influences of human characteristics, a blending of genetic and environmental factors. Ridley also takes a historical view on this topic, so you have the opportunity to experience not only current scientific thought on the subject, but the development of these views over time.

I don’t often read books that have been adapted for film, especially after having seen the film, but there is one exception that is worth mentioning: October Sky: A Memoir by Homer Hickam. I found myself reading this book very quickly and wishing that it did not end. It takes a wonderful look at the relationship between father and son, and catches that early spirit of space exploration—when Werner von Braun’s brilliance astounded. I enjoyed remembering that feeling—the one that made me try to build a toy rocket as a child. I have really pleasant memories of this book.

On a lighter note, I recommend that you take a look at J. Ruth Gendler’s The Book of Qualities. This amusing, and at times insightful, book takes us through human qualities, such as greed, passion and clarity — giving them each a story and personality. I have been fortunate to meet many interesting people as I have moved from graduate student, to postdoctoral fellow, to assistant professor. I often think about their qualities, as described in this book. It makes you think about the temperaments of individuals with a little twist, and can make you smile when you least expect it.

Charles McKinney

Assistant Professor of History

Roger Wilkins, Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism
My uncle introduced this book to me a few months ago, and I can’t wait to go through it once again. Wilkins is a brilliant social commentator, lyrical writer and outstanding historian. In Pillow, he reflects on his multiracial Virginia heritage and examines the riddles of race and patriotism that confounded the early republic and continue to challenge us today. What I love about Wilkins’ work is that he’s interested in neither hero worship nor character assassination. The main characters in this book — Jefferson, Madison, Mason, Washington and the black folks laboring as slaves — come across as three-dimensional people. Wilkins shows us how these incredible men and women grappled with the revolutionary possibilities of independence, what he calls their collective and individual pursuit of “human space.” Moreover, he illumines the process by which the founding fathers made decisions in those years about freedom and “unfreedom” that would simultaneously propel the nation forward and chain it to a legacy of racial inequality. I assigned this book in one of my classes and the students loved it. I’m looking forward to reading it more closely this summer.

Yann Martel, Life of Pi
For several months now, I’ve been hearing about Martel’s quirky book. Since I’m such a nonfiction junkie (too much history!) I thought this would be a good book to jump-start the summer reading season. Boy was I right. This book is great! The protagonist, Pi Patel, is the Indian son of a zookeeper. Pi is devoutly religious, so much so that he’s an adherent to the three major religions of the world. When Pi’s father decides to move the zoo to Canada, the family and their caged animals board a Japanese cargo ship, which promptly sinks. Pi is the sole survivor. I should clarify: He is the sole human survivor. He shares his life raft with a Bengal tiger, and has to use his wits to stay alive. But let me be clear: This book is about so much more than an Indian kid lost at sea. Martel’s novel is a multilayered exploration, a parable about our place in the world. A story about faith, family, coming of age, survival and zookeeping — what more do you need? The prose is smart, lively and downright funny. This is the quintessential summer reading book.

Timothy Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story
While playing outside in his hometown of Oxford, NC, in 1970, a playmate walked up to Tim Tyson and casually remarked that his father and uncle had just killed a black man. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, tensions rose and communication deteriorated. Oxford, a small town that remained relatively untouched by the civil rights movement, descended into mayhem. At the time of the incident, Tim’s father was the pastor of the all-white Methodist church in town. In the wake of sustained efforts to encourage church members and the larger community to confront its racial history, the Tyson family was force to move. Blood is a fascinating account of this time in the South’s history. Tyson is without a doubt one of the more gifted historians writing on the Southern civil rights experience. What makes his work so compelling is that he is the classic Southern storyteller. This book is one part memoir, one part investigative journalism and several parts good history.