Here are just a few books on my summer reading list:
Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books. Robinson is the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of the novel, Gilead, as well as Housekeeping, and Home. She’s also written a collection of essays I like: The Death of Adam. When I Was a Child is another collection of essays. In them, Robinson laments the current state of American democracy, and in other sections, she decries the dumbing down of American culture. Although clearly a fan of Enlightenment thinking, she preaches against such trends from a perspective that sees human beings as imago dei, images of God, who deserve to be treated as such.
José Saramago’s Blindness. I just finished reading this novel for my monthly book club. This book won Saramago the Nobel Prize in Literature, and it’s also been made into a motion picture (which I have not seen). The book is a kind of a Lord of the Flies book, except with adults who have an inexplicable and sudden blindness. Like Lord of the Flies, it asks interesting questions about the nature of human beings, how should human beings organize themselves into a civil society, etc.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula. After much thought and discussion, the Humanities team decided on this novel for summer reading for students entering Humanities IV in the fall. Vampires. We don’t seem to get enough of them–whether it’s the current love affair with the Twilight series (books or films) or the 1990s Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series or the countless vampire novels or films that have been made in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Stoker published his tale in 1899, and it reveals not only unease about the monster within, but also about the “new” developments of the day, whether it be technology (medical, scientific, practical), imperialism, or changing norms for gender and sexuality. I was surprised at how creepy this old tale still felt in 2012.
Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. This book is also a Humanities-inspired pick. For the first time, Humanities IV students will be reading Woolf’s famous A Room of One’s Own. Woolf famously argues in the latter piece that for women to write fiction they need a measure of economic independence and physical privacy (the room of one’s own). But she also argues much more, and I wanted to know more about this woman who has such an interesting view of gender and sexuality. Briggs’ book is a kind of literary biography of Woolf–she explains Woolf through Woolf’s writing. Although many traditional biographical details appear–Woolf’s sexual abuse by her half-brothers, her breakdowns, her marriage, her odd relationship with her sister, etc.–Briggs frames these details through Woolf’s publications. The biography, for example, begins with the publication of Woolf’s first novel, and the only pictures in the book are those of Woolf’s writing or covers of Woolf’s books. It’s not my favorite kind of biography, but it seems right, somehow, to try to understand Woolf primarily through what she published.
Jean Fagan Yellin’s Harriet Jacobs: A Life. Harriet Jacobs’ now famous slave narrative was one of several such narratives that I had a chance to discuss as part of a three and a half day seminar sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges in collaboration with the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Reading Jacobs in the context of so many other slave narratives made me realize how unique her voice was and is in the genre. Yellin’s biography of Jacobs won the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, awarded by the Gilder Lerhman Center for the “the most outstanding nonfiction book published in English on the subject of slavery and/or abolition and antislavery movements.”
Thomas Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. One of the recurring topics in this year’s annual Organization of American Historians’ conference was an examination of a recent historiographical development in civil rights history embodied in the phrase “the long civil rights movement.” Jacqueline Dowd Hall coined the phrase (or at least made it famous) in a 2005 article for the Journal of American History, and it’s part of a larger movement among civil rights historians to see civil rights history as something not limited to the South and the period covering 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) to 1964 (Civil Rights Act). In covering the history of civil rights movement in the northern United States, Sugrue’s book reflects this historiographical trend. I hope that it encourages me and my future students to see the civil rights as having a history even in their own backyards.
Cynthia Blair’s I’ve Got to Make My Livin’: Black Women’s Sex Work in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago. I would be remiss if I did not recommend at least one book on prostitution. There are many books on the history of prostitution, but there are few books specifically on the history of black women’s participation in prostitution. Here’s one.