The Word on Summer Reads

BooksBrowse someone’s books, and you browse their life. We are what we read! The pile of books on someone’s nightstand can tell you a lot about who they are, what they believe and where their passions lie. 

Books not only reveal our interests, they also bring us together – in discussion, in learning and in understanding. A shared reading experience can inform our mutual work, inspire our collective imaginations and shape our perceptions of humanity.

What better time than the lazy days of summer to seek information and inspiration from a good book? And what better source of summer reading recommendations than members of our very own faculty – those who guide us in discussion, learning and understanding?

We asked some of our professors to recommend two irresistible books: one, a great (but accessible) read in their field of study; the other, the book that’s on top of their nightstand – the one they’re itching to read next, no matter what the topic. Their selections let you learn a little more about them, and you’ll learn from them again, too – no matter how long it is since you left campus.

Vicky Tashjian (History)

Great read in my field
I love Iris Origo’s “War in Val D’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944” for the insight it affords into daily life in rural Tuscany during the world-turned-upside-down time when the Germans and a fascist domestic government controlled the region. Reading this book while traveling in the Val D’Orcia this past January enriched that experience and led me to think in unexpected ways about this beautiful valley and its not always peaceful past.

Next on my nightstand
Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza.” I am looking forward to reading this as a follow-up to Janet Soskice’s “The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels.” Both relate 19th-century discoveries of critically important religious documents, yet also delight as compelling real-life tales of exploration, intellectual discovery and derring-do by two lady adventurers who outdid the preeminent Oxbridge scholars of their day. For lighter but still beautifully written fare,  I recommend Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mysteries. They feature wonderfully rendered and psychologically complex characters that elevate the genre.

Bonnie McVey ’82 (Computer Science)

Great read in my field
“The Annotated Turing” by Charles Petzold. From the back cover: “Before digital computers ever existed, Alan Turing envisioned their power and versatility ... but also proved what computers could never do.” Remarkably, this seminal paper on computability and the imaginary Turing Machine was written in 1936.
 
Next on my nightstand
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - An Inquiry into Values” by Robert Pirsig. Years ago, before I owned a motorcycle, a graduate student at Ball State University gave me his copy of this book. The copy was annotated with his personal thoughts, so I quit reading it. But I recently bought my own copy with the plan of reading it this summer. And yes, I have performed basic maintenance on my Harley.

The Rev. John Bostwick, O.Praem., ’68 (Religious Studies)

Great read in my field
Michael Plekon’s “Saints as They Really Are” both energized me and brought me to tears. The excitement comes from his opening up of the notion of holiness to include all sorts of people, not only religious celebrities. What brought me to tears was the recognition of toxic religion: How institutional religion can become dysfunctional, an obstacle to a persons’ spiritual growth. It is important that someone, someone who is faithful, can recognize these difficulties. 

Next on my nightstand
When I am not reading spiritual or theological works, I am likely to be found with a murder mystery. “Death in Holy Orders” by P. D. James is a favorite. Set in an Anglo-Catholic seminary in remote England, it appeals to my churchly tastes. The complex plot keeps one guessing … no obvious villain here. And characters that are “characters,” human and unique. I’m looking forward to reading it again.

David Poister (Chemistry)

Great read in my field
“The Phenomenon of Man” by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. As an environmental chemist working at a Catholic college, I’ve become particularly intrigued by the ideas that form at the confluence of science and religion. I must admit that this philosopher’s writings can be a bit dense for a simple-minded scientist such as myself but this is one of the books that has had a big impact on my synthesis of these two areas. 

Next on my nightstand
Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates” is a hilarious and informative look at New England Puritans and their influence on American culture. And my secret vice is the novels of P. G. Wodehouse. His books are pure silliness and they never fail to lift my spirits.

Sarah Parks (Music)

Great read in my field
“Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters.” The weaving of this biography is unique in that the warp is the annotations by editor Styra Avins, which frame the significant historical events of Brahms’ life; and the weft is the voice of Brahms, experienced through his translated letters. Did Brahms feel a deep, unrequited love for Clara Schumann? The letters leave interesting clues.

Next on my nightstand
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” by Victor Hugo. Hugo’s novel has been the inspiration for several films, including one by Disney, but they all tend to stray from the authentic story. Key characters are cut, personalities are altered and endings changed. The original text is a great study of human behavior with themes of love, loss, licentiousness, disdain, desolation and self-sacrifice.

Charley Jacobs (Political Science)

Great read in my field
“The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change?” by Gerald N. Rosenberg. Rosenberg reviews Supreme Court cases regarding civil rights, abortion and women’s rights, the environment, reapportionment, and criminal justice and finds that, absent help from other government actors, the judiciary is too weak to bring about the transformation sought by litigants. He suggests that individuals and groups would be better served utilizing their resources to bring about change outside of the courtroom. 

Next on my nightstand
”Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand. As a former competitive college runner and son of a World War II veteran, I’m interested in this true story of Louis Zamperini. A member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team who competed in the 5,000 meters and later nearly broke the 4-minute mile, Zamperini also served as a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific theater of war. He and the pilot of the plane that he manned survived in a raft for seven weeks after being shot down. They were eventually pulled from the ocean by the Japanese who interred them for the remainder of the war.

Laura Neary (Writing Center)

Great read in my field
“Out Stealing Horses” by Per Petterson. I liked this well-written book because of its quiet voice and atmosphere. Here’s an excerpt from the book, where the main character, a 15-year-old boy at the time, is cutting grass with his father: “Why not cut down the nettles?” he said. I looked down at the short scythe handle and across at the tall nettles. “It will hurt,” I said. Then he looked at me with half a smile and a little shake of the head. “You decide for yourself when it will hurt,” he said.

Next on my nightstand
“Gulp” by Mary Roach. I loved her previous books “Stiff” and “Spook,” which humorously inform readers about unpopular subject matter, and I’m hoping this one is similar in its humor. (I think you have to have a somewhat twisted sensibility to enjoy her books, but you’ll learn a lot!).

Mark Bockenhauer (Geography)

Great read in my field
A long-time favorite is by Yi-Fu Tuan, an amazing geographer-philosopher who is still, I believe, professor emeritus at UW-Madison. One of his lovely books is called “The Good Life.” Years ago, I recommended it for the Honors Reading, and Professor Tuan actually came to campus and spoke. He even had pizza with the students and signed their copies! 

Next on my nightstand
“The Tiger,” by John Vaillant. It was recommended to me by a friend who knows I like environmental and geographical topics – just started it!

July 2, 2013