Read any good books lately? In August, Clarion's Roving Reporter asked faculty about their summer reading.
Associate Professor of Astronomy
I’ve read Scurvy, by Stephen R. Bown, a fascinating history of our scientific understanding of the disease, how the cure was empirically found and lost repeatedly because it didn’t comport with then-current theoretical understanding of illness, and because the empirically evident cure was expensive. A cautionary scientific and social tale. As a scientist, I lean towards empiricism, so I found it by turns engrossing and aggravating.
Rabid, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, is another medical history – about a terrifying killer for which our understanding was long stymied by theoretical blind alleys, similar to those with scurvy (with some of the same characters). A little graphic, with some claims that are a stretch, but I’m a total sucker for medical mysteries. (I also like reading the “Think Like a Doctor” column in The New York Times). The path to the vaccine made me remember the sacrifices of earlier scientific generations, who often put themselves in far greater physical danger than most of us have to face today. It also made me slightly paranoid about bats....
Closer to home, I’ve read Dinosaurs in the Attic, by Douglas J. Preston. It’s an older history of the American Museum of Natural History, where I’m a research associate. It’s fascinating to read about what’s hidden away down the hall, and the people who brought it there. Probably, it’s of a type with some of my other reading – I love to find out how we found out what we know. Textbooks usually present this in a very linear, logical fashion, but histories show that this is never the case.
Assistant Professor of English
Among other things, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Atwood’s readers enter a dystopian, fictional world that resonates powerfully with our contemporary world of corporate exploitation of the environment for profit, a world in which human greed and arrogance, together with profound inequality, lead to crisis for humans as a species. Sound familiar? Like other dystopian worlds, Atwood’s fictional world is our present, not some distant future.
I loved this novel so much that it lead me back to Surfacing, in which Atwood’s protagonist travels into the Canadian north (in this case, northern Quebec) where much of what passes as civilized sanity loosens and unravels in the face of the mystery of her father’s disappearance, her gendered interactions with her companions, the threat of “American” (i.e., USAmerican) exploitation, and of course her own deep encounter with the wild world. I had the great pleasure to re-read this novel – 40 years after I first encountered it – on my own wonderful adventure on the north shore of Lake Huron/Georgian Bay, Ontario, exploring a land of lakes and mountains that I knew previously from the early 20th-century Canadian “Group of Seven” painters.
Professor of Philosophy
I have been reading Hilary Mantel’s book, A Place of Greater Safety, on the French Revolution, one of my favorite historical eras. It’s very entertaining, with believable renditions of George-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins, but with a more contemporary feminist sensibility. And as always, this revolution provides much food for thought about strategy and tactics, the role of leaders, and the challenges of cross-class collaborations.
I’ve also read Nicola Gavey’s book Just Sex? It’s a wonderful sociological analysis of current thinking about rape, how to relate it to “normal” heterosexual sex, and to power. It’s a smart analysis that disagrees with Catherine MacKinnon but also reveals what she calls the “cultural scaffolding” of rape in heterosexual norms.
And I’ve read College Girl, by Laura Gray-Rosendale, an old friend of mine, about her own harrowing experience of rape in college. It’s a very well-written memoir that vividly relates her 19-year-old self (before and after) and the difficult aftermath of the assault, as well as her 20-year-older self today and how she has come to a greater understanding of what happened and how it affected her and the others in her life.
Associate Professor of English
I’ve been reading White Out, a memoir of heroin addiction by the Case Western English professor Michael Clune, who recently spoke at the Graduate Center. It’s outrageous and quite brilliant about the relationship between addiction and memory. Clune is an impressive literary critic as well as a memoirist. In a way, this book is a companion to his compelling critical work just out from Stanford, Writing Against Time.
I’ve also been reading Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s new book of poetry People on Sunday, which is a masterpiece. It’s a book that explores, among other things, the connection or disconnection between the resources of poetic form and the necessity of contemporary political imagination. Both of O’Brien’s parents teach at CUNY.
And at the moment I’m reading an unpublished manuscript by the great and unclassifiable Maggie Nelson that deftly mixes criticism and memoir. I only realize now that she took her PhD at the Grad Center – so it seems my current summer reading is quite connected to CUNY!
Adjunct Lecturer in Art & Design
I use my summer reading time to relax, and renew my mind.
I’ve read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It’s one of those number-one bestsellers that is completely gripping. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment, by Thich Nhat Hanh, has been my reading for self-improvement. Thich Nhat Hanh’s lessons are applicable to everyday life, and this book continually reminds you to be at peace with your present moment, which is critical in New York, where we face many kinds of stresses.
And of course, to keep up with my software skills, I am reviewing a desk copy of the book Photoshop CC: Visual QuickStart Guide by Elaine Weinmann and Peter Lourekas.
Associate Professor of Constitutional Law
John Jay College
This summer has been nearly consumed by work on my new book and media requests to discuss voting rights, affirmative action, and the Trayvon Martin verdict. Dispirited, my summer reading has often focused on other people’s problems. Reading David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood and Brave Companions made me feel a little better, seeing how people persevere.
I admire McCullough’s historical storytelling and his journalistic detail. The Johnstown Flood is of course about the 1889 Johnstown Flood, while Brave Companions is about various people who were tremendous forces in their own times, but who get little attention today. Often they made great contributions that we still live with today, but we’ve largely forgotten who they were. It’s so interesting what history chooses to maintain – who we speak of with a sense of reverence, keep in public discourse, and who we do not. Like Alexander von Humboldt, an early scientist and a great researcher of the natural world. I remember a high school named after him, but I hadn’t really known anything about him until this book.
I’ve also been reading Louis Armstrong’s autobiography Satchmo, and Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter. In between books, I’m reading selections from Submersion Journalism, edited by Bill Wasik, a quirky book of first-person articles from Harper’s Magazine. Speaking of Harper’s, I am enjoying the variety and depth of writing found in magazines – especially The New Republic, Mother Jones, The Nation, and Harper’s.
Esther K. Smith
Adjunct Assistant Professor in Art
I am writing this summer – both poetry and a follow-up to my first book, How to Make Books – and when I write I don’t read so much.
I’m taking Lisa Jarnot’s “Writing from the Senses” workshop. Lisa has taught in Brooklyn College’s Poetry MFA. I have been reading her books, Joie De Vivre and Night Scenes – I enjoy her language and the way she plays with poetic forms. Lisa lent me artist/poet Joe Brainard’s I Remember. I love the way memoir sneaks through his nostalgic, visual lists, how 1940-50’s Oklahoma juxtaposes with 1960-70’s New York City.
I also read Gene Kerrigan’s Midnight Choir, a portrait of contemporary Dublin inside a fascinating crime novel. With realistic women characters and a compelling plot, it’s an unsentimental view of Dublin and Ireland today. The city and the nation almost become characters.
I was a “Giver” for World Book Night – distributing 20 copies of Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress in a pro-bono edition to people who might not otherwise have read it. I opened the hard-boiled novel – set in 1948 Watts, Los Angeles, to remind myself what I would be giving – and did not put it down until I finished. The receptionist in my doctor’s office had the same experience – once she started, she did not move until she read the last page.
Professor of History
One book that has been fun to read was Eric Foner’s book on Lincoln, The Fiery Trial – the best book on Lincoln I have read. Foner does not focus on Lincoln’s greatness. Instead, he examines the forces that moved him from supporting colonization to emancipation and citizenship for former slaves. I’ve also been reading The Coup by Ervand Abrahamian, a colleague at Baruch. The Coup examines the 1953 coup in Iran that was planned by the CIA, and how it shaped modern Iran.
Most of my reading this summer has to do with a scholarly project on the Holocaust. In July, I delivered a paper on African Americans and Holocaust memory at a conference in Germany. Because of the interest and discussion it sparked, I have decided to focus on a book project on the subject. I’ve been reading a number of books as a result, including Jesse Owen’s biography, Laurence Thomas’s Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust, and Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life. I have also been reading a number of books claiming the existence of a “Black Holocaust,” including John Henrik Clarke’s Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust.
Interviews by John Tarleton