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Summer Reading

Photography by Justin Fox Burks

Rychetta Watkins, also a runner, at the Rhodes track Rychetta Watkins
Assistant Professor of English

After a flurry of finals, mountains of grading and the grandeur of graduation, the summer extends before many an academic in a glorious expanse, free of the commitments that often define academic life: meetings, campus events and class planning. Instead, summer offers the chance to refocus our efforts and rejuvenate our intellectual batteries. In summers past, I often filled that inviting expanse with research travel, seminars and new projects. This summer, however, I have decided to focus mainly on writing. Writing up my research is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the position, and when I write I feel most in tune with the creative minds and spirits behind the works I study and analyze. In addition to completing the manuscript for my first monograph and writing up a proposal for an edited source book, I will also work to complete several writing projects inspired by past classes and conference papers. Though this summer will look somewhat different from those of the past several years, one thing will be constant: the summer reading list.

As an English professor, it is difficult, but fortunately not really necessary, to separate reading for pleasure from reading for my work. As a scholar of contemporary American, African American, and ethnic American literature, I can happily consider my summer reading as both business and pleasure. This summer, I plan to check out new works by two of my favorites, plus one rising star. Walter Mosley is a prolific author of mostly detective fiction. He is perhaps best known as the creator of the Easy Rawlins series and the novel Devil in a Blue Dress, which was made into a film starring Denzel Washington. Having read most, but not all, of his previous works, I look forward to Fortunate Son, the story of stepbrothers, one black, the other white, who are separated early in life. One lives an unstable life filled with economic and emotional turmoil, while the other lives a life of privilege and ease marked by an emotional distance bordering on cruelty. After their reunion, the stark contrast in their lives raises the question: Who should be considered the “fortunate” son?

I also plan to catch up with another of my favorite writers, J. California Cooper. I was first introduced to this Southern folk writer by my mother and aunt, a former librarian and English teacher, respectively. Cooper, who began as a playwright and made her name as a master of the short story, sets most of her works in the South and populates them with the type of inspiring, engaging and unique characters often associated with Southern fiction. Her latest novel, Life Is Short But Wide, tells the story of two families who settle in Wideland, OK. As in most of Cooper’s works, it tells the full, beautiful, at times agonizing story of the search for and struggle to keep love. I look forward to being transported to a place that feels like home by Cooper’s crisp, vivid language.

In addition to these well-known writers, I also plan to read a novel by a well-regarded author with a local connection. Though I have taught from Randall Kenan’s short story collection, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, I have yet to read the former University of Memphis professor’s 1989 novel, A Visitation of Spirits. Set in Tim’s Creek, the fictional North Carolina rural community that is the setting of much of his fiction, this coming-of-age novel centers on teenage protagonist, Horace Cross, who, in the midst of struggling to define himself and come to terms with his budding homosexuality, undertakes a mystical ritual that will transform him into a bird.

All of these novels explore the sometimes wrenching consequences of the decisions we make at life’s crossroads. In each, the authors remind us that while memory and personal history can keep us tied to the pain of the past, love still holds the power to heal and transform.

Milton Moreland at nearby Ames Plantation, filtering botanical material from soil Milton Moreland
Associate Professor of Religious Studies

I recommend anything and everything by Toni Morrison! But I trust that most people reading this article already know of Morrison’s preeminence. Thus I have pulled five other books off the shelf for your consideration. These books taught me about the human condition and were hugely satisfying to read. Julian Barnes is smart and challenging. In A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, he is at his best. These seemingly disjointed stories are each thought provoking and often hilarious. The collection and arrangement of the set of stories into a “history of the world” is a cause for celebration. After reading Barnes, you won’t be able to think about the story of the flood in the same way. His concluding chapter, “The Dream,” is a spectacular vision.

I have used this “history” as the reading for a weeklong seminar at the end of my Search class. I cherish those classroom discussions. When I first read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead I was overwhelmed. Her story is as intense as it is complex. But Silko is always worth the effort. Her story is both a reflection on and an indictment of the United States; it is a dark vision. But remember what we know about the “unexamined life.” If you are unfamiliar with Silko, start with her Storyteller or Ceremony. But don’t forget her Almanac. Silko’s stories are not only a commanding presence in Native American literature, they are utterly powerful. At 763 pages, this is not a light read. Don’t wait for this novel to be made into a movie; it is too powerful for the big screen.

I had heard of Richard Powers before coming to Rhodes, but I’m grateful to English Professor Marshall Boswell for recommending this work during a conversation about another incredible writer, David Foster Wallace. We are quite fortunate to have the world’s leading expert on both Wallace and Powers right here in our English Department. I particularly enjoyed Powers’ Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. Like the novels of Silko and Barnes, this story weaves its way among multiple characters in an inspired blend of time and space. The story is loaded with historical details (I learned a lot about World War I), but the story never stalls. Powers maintains a fast pace that keeps the reader’s attention while constructing a multilayered “investigation” that is as entertaining as it is intellectual.

One of the most enduring books in college classrooms of the past two decades is Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It was first published in 1985, and I think the novel is even more powerful in 2010 than it was 25 years ago. This story of the Gladney family is both a witty critique of modern consumerism and a biting examination of modern technology and our fear of death. DeLillo’s story introduces us to “the college on the hill” where the protagonist is a professor of Hitler Studies. His short “parable” of the “most photographed barn in America” is worth the price of the book.

And finally, as a scholar of Christian origins and a field archaeologist, I’m compelled to mention one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century.

When an Egyptian farmer discovered the Nag Hammadi Library in 1945, he had no idea what these ancient books would tell us about the rise of Christianity. We already knew that Christianity began with great diversity, but the books in this ancient library revealed so many new details that scholars are just now beginning to understand their impact. The Nag Hammadi Library in English, revised in 1990 and edited by James M. Robinson, is a gold mine. If you have never read these ancient Christian texts, now is the time. You cannot fully understand how Christianity began without this long lost library.

Bill Skoog in his office William Skoog
Chair, Rhodes Department of Music

The Art of Possibility by Benjamin and Rosamund Zander is a book designed for all people who wish to examine and perhaps rethink aspects of life and thought, from the inside out. It is NOT a self-help book, but “… more of a how-to book of an unusual kind” (from their introduction). Benjamin (Ben) Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonia Orchestra and a renowned teacher and public speaker. He dedicates much of his life to teaching, whether in the classroom, from the concert stage, in rehearsals and clinics or when giving public speeches. Rosamund (Roz) brings a different perspective, one that colors Ben’s significantly; she has a private practice in family therapy, and runs accomplishment groups. I have always felt that “music therapy” is a redundant phrase, and the Zanders’ book seems to reinforce that notion.

Again, from their introduction: “The objective of this book is to provide the reader the means to lift off from that world of struggle and sail into a vast universe of possibility.” Chapters of the book include: “It’s All Invented,” “Stepping into a Universe of Possibility,” “Giving an A,” “Giving Way to Passion” and “Rule Number 6,” to name a few. The book offers the reader opportunities to rethink old patterns of thought and behavior, even challenges traditional teaching styles, and reframes them into new paradigms. It also offers ideas of how, and why, that might be accomplished. As teachers, we are involved day-to-day in helping to transform lives, seeking new possibilities for ourselves, our students and our colleagues. This book offers many valuable insights into this process.