President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
September 27, 2006
The summer months can be busy ones for Princeton’s faculty — there are articles to write, courses to prepare, and research trips to make — but this is also a time when all of us try to catch our breaths and turn our minds to other things. Curling up with a good book is an excellent way of doing so, and I thought I would ask six members of our faculty to reflect on their summer reading and share their eclectic “picks” with you. — S.M.T.
D. Graham Burnett, History: Describing his isolating decision to declare himself a pacifist in the midst of the spasm of patriotic truculence that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American poet William Stafford later wrote, “And within two weeks, carrying a copy of The Journal of John Woolman given to me by my landlady, I was on my way to a camp for conscientious objectors in Arkansas.” When I came across this sentence in a small book of Stafford’s essays, I decided I needed to know more about John Woolman — who was, I went on to discover, an eighteenth-century New Jersey tailor, Quaker, abolitionist, and preacher. I have now read my way through Woolman’s Journal and his pair of carefully reasoned and scripturally intensive arguments against slavery. These are texts for anyone concerned with the ideals of social justice, the mechanisms of cultural transformation, and the cultivation of conscience. To watch Woolman thread his way between a spirit of dutiful resignation and a gnawing sense of being obliged to bear witness to the need for change is to see played out that most intimate drama of both civic and religious life.
Lynn W. Enquist, Molecular Biology: While fly-fishing with my wife this summer in Montana, we were joined by Angus Burton and his wife Dana. We soon realized that Angus is John McPhee’s nephew, and I was reading McPhee’s latest book, Uncommon Carriers. McPhee captivates with clarity the details of barges, coal trains, and the UPS system. He gathers nuances of spoken speech so vividly that one understands the person as well as the wonderful machines he or she operates.
At one of our unofficial chairman’s meetings at a local watering hole, someone suggested that I read A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down, by Robert B. Laughlin. Almost instantly I realized that this book is not just about physics. Laughlin points out that reductionist thinking has severe limits; when you look at something too closely, it can vanish into oblivion. He argues that the most fundamental laws of physics are “emergent” — they result from the organization of large numbers of atoms.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann, is a treasure trove of information. The Americas before 1492 were not a vast wilderness populated by small nomadic bands that were recent migrants from Asia. Rather, the New World had more people than in Europe, and Native Americans had already massively transformed their land before the Europeans arrived.
Chang-rae Lee, Creative Writing: The Radetzky March, a wonderful novel by the Austrian Jewish writer Joseph Roth, gave me much pleasure this summer. Roth is a somewhat forgotten titan whose remarkable storytelling skills and deeply empathetic portraits of characters are as stylish and affecting to read today as they surely were in 1932. A contemporary of Mann and Musil, Roth wrote 14 fine novels, but The Radetzky March is his enduring classic. It is the story of three successive generations of the male Trotta line, whose lives, by a stroke of fate on the battlefield, are inextricably bound up with that of Franz Joseph himself, the last of the Hapsburg rulers. Roth traces the Trottas’ fortunes and tribulations amid the fraying fabric of a doomed empire, from the fateful Battle of Solferino in 1859 to the dark eve of World War I. Although fairly compact in form, it is a sweeping historical narrative, though perhaps the real grandeur of Roth’s gifts lies in his exquisite eye for human gesture and detail, ever-reminding us that history — however momentous and epically scaled — is essentially, and too often tragically, personal.
Katherine S. Newman, Sociology/Woodrow Wilson School: For my recreational reading this summer, I picked a first novel by Khaled Hosseini entitled The Kite Runner. It is the story of Amir, a Pashtun Afghani immigrant to California who returns to Kabul after the Taliban have taken over to rescue Sohrab, the son of Hassan, a Hazara childhood friend who has been murdered by the authorities. The dominant Pashtun despise the Hazara minority, and although Amir and Hassan grew up together, Amir carries a burden of shame for the way he treated Hassan long ago. Amir tries to make amends by saving Hassan’s son, Sohrab, from slavery. In the course of his good deed, Amir comes face to face with what his country confronts politically under Taliban rule. The book is beautifully written, and the story is quite powerful. For readers who want to learn the modern history of Afghanistan in novelistic form, this is the book to pick.
Jeff E. Nunokawa, English: My standout summer book — Robert Fagles’ fabulous translation of The Iliad. I’d read it before and thus knew that I was in for an excellent adventure. What I couldn’t have known well enough in advance was just how hard and deeply the old “poem of force” (Simone Weil) would strike a contemporary, tuned into current events as gorgeous as the World Cup and as grim as the catastrophe in the Middle East. Homer’s story of the hunger for glory, gold, and vengeance that hurries humans into battle proved the best viewer’s guide imaginable, first to the most exciting and then to the most excruciating spectacles of the past few months, not to mention the past few millennia. Whether from the glamour of the playing field or the horror of the killing ones that no “beautiful game” can quiet for long, all roads lead to Homer.
Jennifer L. Rexford, Computer Science: I’ve always enjoyed reading the memoirs of my favorite authors to learn about the formative events that shaped their writing. This summer I read two memoirs as different as the authors themselves, yet each deeply moving. Each book gave me a fascinating glimpse into the life, and art, of a talented writer.
Living to Tell the Tale provides a captivating view of Gabriel García Márquez’s childhood and his early years as a struggling writer. The book captures all the mysticism and imagery of his Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude, while shedding light on the idiosyncratic characters and events in those novels.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is Alison Bechdel’s account of her childhood with a secretive, emotionally distant father who ultimately commits suicide. Told in the graphic form of her comic strips, the book is truly absorbing, with a unique blend of literary references, beautiful drawings, and Bechdel’s distinctive sardonic wit.