President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
Books of Summer
September 26, 2007
As I did last fall, I have invited a cross-section of our faculty to share their favorite summer reading with you. I hope that some of you will be inspired to delve into these books in the coming months and that you will enjoy them as much as their “reviewers” have. — S.M.T.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Religion/African American Studies: This was the summer of fiction. I finally returned to Edward P. Jones’s masterful novel, The Known World. Jones weaves a fascinating story about a black slaveowner in Virginia’s Manchester County and the dramatic changes on the plantation after his death. In Jones’s hands, the peculiar institution becomes quite peculiar indeed. The novel is populated by a tormented white slaveowner who dearly loves a black woman and their children, free blacks who own slaves, and a seemingly crazy young slave woman who escapes and captures the beautiful pathos of Manchester County in art.
I also read with much enjoyment T. C. Boyle’s utterly disturbing novel, The Tortilla Curtain. Boyle dramatically captures the hypocrisies hidden and not-so-hidden in our immigration debates by charting the experiences of an illegal immigrant couple and a self-avowed liberal environmentalist.
Each summer I try to read a memoir and a biography. Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison is simply amazing. I must admit that my love for Ellison diminished a bit after finishing the book. I also read the autobiography of one of my favorite poets, Czeslaw Milosz’s Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition. In his hands, autobiography becomes social history and the result is classic Milosz. The last line of the book tells it all: “when ambition counsels us to lift ourselves above simple moral rules guarded by the poor in spirit, rather than to choose them as our compass needle amid the uncertainties of change, we stifle the only thing that can redeem our follies and mistakes: love.”
François Morel, Geosciences/Princeton Environmental Institute: The heated debates surrounding the publication of Peeling the Onion, in which the 80-year-old Günter Grass revealed belatedly that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS, made me decide to read Grass, at last, while I was on vacation in Brittany.
The author recounts his life from his birth in 1927 until his first publication successes in the ’50s, and his relentless hunger for food, sex, and art, all in short supply in the meantime. But mostly he tells of his struggle to remember and recount.
Most remarkable for me was the first half of the book, where hyper-realistic details of color, shape, or smell are superimposed on the disorienting vagueness that is war. Few authors can match Grass’s extraordinary power of evocation. For my own literary signposts, his battle with memory is more like Celine’s “voyage” than Proust’s re-creation of lost time.
How about the “confession” of having been drafted in the Waffen-SS in 1944? One short paragraph on pages 110–111 discusses what has become the center of debate: the drafting, the pride, the shame, the concealment, the joint responsibility. We are brought into the traitorous moral landscape of war, different for the victors and the vanquished; different if you’re French or American; very different if you’re German or Polish—and which are you if you’re born and raised in the free city of Danzig?
Danzig: declared a free city by the Treaty of Versailles, annexed by the Nazis in 1939 (after a short fight that killed one of Grass’s uncles), now Gdansk in Poland. As for the Waffen-SS: the sinister double S is part of my childhood memory of postwar stories. But I didn’t know that the whole unit, nearly a million strong at the end of the war, had been declared a “criminal organization” at the Nuremberg trial (except those conscripted after 1943).
Grass has managed (unwittingly?) to focus on his person the complex debate of individual and collective responsibility.
James C. Sturm, Electrical Engineering/Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials: Until last week, I had planned to write about a book by Rush Loving, The Men Who Loved Trains, about one of America’s first glamorous “high-tech” industries that became obsolete because of changes in technology and competition, and how after a lot of pain and bankruptcies it “re-invented” itself to again become successful.
But then last week at the beach I read Haunted by Africa, an autobiography by Robert Waite, who now lives in Princeton. On one level, the book tells the facts of how he started his life in a remote village in Sierra Leone as the son of American missionaries, moved to the U.S. when he was 10, grew up in poverty, and then eventually went on to become the first African American vice president of a top 10 corporation. Much of the book’s energy, however, was on how his life was complicated by issues universal to nearly all of us—family conflicts on several levels, religious and personal issues—and by barriers many of us do not face, such as the overt racism that led him and his wife shortly after they were married to give up on the U.S. entirely and move to Africa (not necessarily planning to come back). How he faced these struggles over the long haul to make a life’s journey was both fascinating and inspiring.
Jennifer A. Widner, Politics/Woodrow Wilson School: A few years ago Oprah proposed creating “poem of the month” clubs as a way to stay in touch with friends and relatives in busy times. Fortunately, she didn’t say we had to pen the lines ourselves. Her challenge prompted a quest to find poems that sparkle with wit, humor, or penetrating observation, without descending to the morose or obscure. Billy Collins and Ted Kooser have become favorites, along with The Bard, whose talents gleam. This summer I added some wonderful Langston Hughes poems to my secret stash, including my particular favorite, “Mother to Son.” “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” the speaker begins, “But all the time/I’se been a-climbin’on/And reachin’ landin’s/And turnin’ corners/And sometimes goin’ in the dark/…So boy… /Don’t you set down on the steps/’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard/…For I’se still goin’, honey/”
Other summer reading included Paul Collier’s pithy yet thoughtful Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Rarely does a book on development economics keep one awake on a long flight, but this one has that power and the topic is important. The text is laced with intriguing examples and one-liners.
For pure fun, my family and I also gathered together over several evenings to listen to the audio book version of Graham Greene’s Confidential Agent, a superb, action-packed psychological study of a few days in the life of a special envoy. For literary craftsmanship and suspense, its closest competitor today is the early John Le Carré. Patrick Tull’s narration draws attention to the skill of the writer and reveals much that a quick reader such as I might miss.