The Age of Shakespeare, by Frank Kermode (Modern Library
Chronicles, 2004). It’s no news that some of the criticism
written by professors of English is unreadable by the general public.
(News-worthier is the fact that many professors of English can’t
read it either.) Publishers are filling the gap by creating series
of brief, accessibly well-written books aimed at the nonprofessional
audience. Readers looking for a single volume to brush up their
Shakespeare won’t do better than this book, barely 200 small
pages. For more than 50 years Kermode has been among the critics
most respected by scholars and general readers alike. His new book
makes no grand claims, and deserves none. It’s better on the
historical background than on the plays themselves, though it’s
good on those as well. It covers much fascinating territory with
a pro’s fine-tuned skill.
The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler (Knopf, 2004). You
keep waiting for the characters in this book to become adorable,
but their author won’t allow it: She keeps them exactly as
prickly, annoying, and odd as she knows they really are. Michael,
the uptight son of a Polish grocer, and Pauline, the impetuous girl
with a will of iron, meet just as cutely as Hollywood could want,
and seem destined to grow into a version of Beatrice and Benedick
[Much Ado About Nothing], or at least Hepburn and Tracy. But Tyler
invokes the convention only to tear it open and reveal the unhappiness
it hides. The pain in this bad marriage never dulls. Divorce would
be a blessing but it comes too late, when the personalities of Michael
and Pauline have hardened. Tyler works on a longer scale here (three
generations) than she usually does, but as in all her best work
she makes us care, unexpectedly, more than we thought we could,
for her desperately plucky characters.
CARYL EMERSON, A. Watson Armour III University
Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures:
Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970-2000, by
Stephen Kotkin (Oxford, 2001). Kotkin argues that the very fact
that a catastrophic end was averted is something of a miracle, given
this heavily armed state with its inept leadership and blustering
ideology. He describes the Soviet collapse as a national state progressively
“dissolved by its own ideals and elite.” The lingering,
mesmerizing effect of those moribund ideals amid growing economic
crisis had prompted Gorbachev to fatal reform and then, at the end,
to fatal delay. By the turn of the decade, his feeble and inebriated
enemies had nothing to offer but unfeasible backward-looking restoration
– or betrayal.
SOLOVKI: The Story of Russia Told Through its Most Remarkable
Islands, by Roy R. Robson (Yale, 2004). An account of some
tiny islands near the Arctic Ocean that have served Russia as monastery,
military fortress, and prison camp – the three invariants
of Russian architectural history, and perhaps of Russian history.
ROBERT GEORGE, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence:
The Vicar of Christ, by Walter Murphy (Macmillan, 1979).
Pope John Paul II, at 84, and ailing, is now the third-longest-serving
pope in history. It is natural that people are beginning to speculate
about who will be the next vicar of Christ. What a good time to
return to this best-selling novel by Princeton’s McCormick
Professor of Jurisprudence emeritus. In the Vicar, an American marine
becomes chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States,
before giving up public affairs for the life of a monk. Sure enough,
the poor fellow ends up becoming pope and bearing the weight of
the church and world on his shoulders. Implausible? Sure. But it’s
also deeply engaging and illuminating of profound questions of religion
PETER SINGER, Ira W. Decamp Professor
of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values:
Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development
Explains What Makes Us Human, by Paul Bloom (Basic Books, 2004).
The subtitle says it all – except that this book does the
explaining better than many other recent efforts. I found the discussion
of the development of morality particularly good.
His Brother’s Keeper: A Story from the Edge of Medicine,
by Jonathan Weiner (Ecco, 2004). How far can we push experimental
medical techniques? Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Weiner
tells a fascinating tale of what one man tried to do for his brother.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot (Penguin USA paperback,
2003). If you’ve never read this, it’s a must. For richness
of character and acute moral insight, it leaves most novels published
today far behind.
VALERIE SMITH, Woodrow Wilson Professor
of Literature and director of the Program in African-American Studies:
Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood, by June Jordan (Basic
Civitas, 2000). In this finely wrought autobiography, June Jordan,
the daughter of Caribbean immigrants, describes her childhood and
early adolescence in Harlem and Brooklyn from the late 1930s until
the early 1950s. Best known as a distinguished poet and essayist,
Jordan here renders the perspective of a remarkably observant, sensitive,
and inquisitive child in language that is lyrical and deeply evocative.
With her extraordinary gift for narrative, Jordan draws her readers
into her passionate, often terrifying relationships with her parents.
Through her ability to render even the most painful experiences
in exquisitely compressed language, she captures her own emerging
DAVID SPERGEL ’82, professor of
Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror,
by Richard A. Clarke (Free Press, 2004). Though my initial foray
into this book was motivated by the media frenzy, I found it to
be a fascinating description of the inner workings of our government
through four administrations, and an insightful discussion of the
war on terror.