Monday, August 11, 2014

More Books Worth Reading

One of the great pleasures of being a teacher is reading. To do my job well, I have to read.  If I don't read a lot, I won't keep up with my field and I'll be a poorer teacher. Fortunately, I like reading.

Even so, one of the great surprises of being a teacher is that, at the end of a long day of work reading, I like to unwind with a good book.  Go figure.

The last few months have brought me a surfeit of good books to unwind with. Here are some of the recent books I've enjoyed:
  • Richard Russo, Straight Man. This is one that has been recommended to me so many times by so many people I finally bought it and read it.  If you work in a small college humanities department, trust me: you'll feel at home in this book. 
  • J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello. This is another that was recommended to me.  It takes the form of a series of lectures delivered by a novelist, with very little framing around each lecture.  The lectures stand alone, but all together they give the picture of an artist at work trying to figure out what exactly she is doing, what she believes, and why. Coetzee is really a philosophical novelist, and he does a remarkable job of engaging directly with figures like Descartes and Kant and Peter Singer.
  • Dave Eggers, How We Are Hungry.  Eggers' short stories are like David Foster Wallace's, but less frenetic and wild and so a little easier to read.  I love the genre, and I'm always fascinated by people like Eggers and Wallace who explore its edges.  I don't love this book, but it has kept my attention as a kind of intellectual exercise, and it is like a garden filled with tiny blossoms that delight the eye when you slow down and look closely. 
  • Matthew Dickerson, The Rood And The Torc.  Dickerson is a friend of mine and my co-author, so there's my disclosure.  Now let me say this about Dickerson: there are good reasons why he's my friend and my co-author, and this book illustrates some of them.  He's a natural, easy storyteller who makes you glad you kept turning the pages.  His prose is light, disappearing from the eye, easily replaced with a mental image of the place and the characters.  This is one of several novels he has written about the peripheries of Beowulf, a beautiful story about poetry, songs, medieval Europe, and the cost of making the right choices. Reading this book was the first time I felt like I could see medieval life, not just read about it.  Homes and hearths come alive with smoke and roasting meat and moving songs; the Frisian landscape and the rolling sea and the smell of cowherds seem to lift off the pages and into my imagination as I read it.  John Wilson is right: this is "a splendid historical novel." Dickerson is brilliant, and so is his prose.
As I've mentioned before, I try to read as many old books as new books.  I usually find it rewarding to read classic and canonical texts.  They help me understand my culture better, and there's usually a good reason they've stood the test of time.  Here are some of my recent reads in that category:
  • Hunter S. Thompson, Screwjack.  This is the book Carlos Castaneda would have written if he'd admitted he was writing fiction.  You feel the intoxication, and you believe it.
  • Herman Melville, Moby Dick.  This is one of those books that everyone knows and nearly nobody reads.  It is long, and full of words.  Lots and lots of words.  But wow.  It is one of those rare books that gives me the sense that every sentence was the child of long and serious reflection. Reading this was like taking a really good class.  Naturally, I bought myself a "What Would Queequeg Do?" t-shirt to mark this milestone in my life.  You can get yours here.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mosses From An Old Manse. And this is like Melville.  You read it because at the end, you discover that what seemed to be a simple story about a simple thing makes you understand your world a lot better.
I want to mention two more books together, even though one belongs to the first list and the other belongs to the second list.  I read them back-to-back, and they both left me with surprising and enduring impressions:

  • John Steinbeck, The Moon Is Down. I love Steinbeck, so I bought this book not knowing a thing about it.  Turns out Steinbeck wrote it as a propaganda piece.  He wanted to give a picture of what it would look like to live in, say, Norway or Denmark under Nazi rule, and how that occupation could lead to resistance.  What I love about Steinbeck is, more than anything, his desire to portray people with sympathy.  The Nazis in his book are real people, believable, and even likeable.  I wish we had more people able to portray our contemporary enemies with such sympathy.  If we could do so, we could love them better, and I think we could better understand how to resist them.  As a bonus, towards the end of the novel there is a prolonged reflection on the meaning of Plato's Apology of Socrates.
  • Patrick Hicks, The Commandant of Lubizec.  (Another disclosure: Hicks is also my friend.) I was pretty sure I'd read all I needed to read about the Holocaust.  I grew up with survivors. I've read all the usual books, I teach several in my classes.  I didn't want to hear any more.  But Hicks has done something truly remarkable in this fictionalized account of Operation Reinhard. In fact, what he's done is similar to what Steinbeck does: he has written about people with real sympathy and insight.  It's a hard read because he spares us nothing, but that's precisely what makes it such a good read. Here's a short video about the book:


  1. Thanks for the tip on Straight Man! It made my summer!

    1. I'm glad to hear it. It's the first novel by Russo that I've read. Now I want to read more.