Summer Reads 2018: What are Princeton professors reading this summer?

July 9, 2018 noon

Six Princeton professors talk about how the books on their shelves relate to their work and share what’s on their summer reading lists. We also have some movie recommendations.

Editor’s note: These musings were gathered during the academic year as arts and humanities writer Jamie Saxon and science writer Liz Fuller-Wright interviewed various professors for stories and projects for the University homepage and social media.

Books on Diana Fuss's bookshelf

Diana Fuss

Diana Fuss

Diana Fuss, the Louis W. Fairchild Class of ’24 Professor of English

What are we looking at?

You’re looking at two sets of collected works: the Folio Society edition of Jane Austen (1975) and the R.W. Franklin variorum edition of Emily Dickinson (1998). The first was a gift from my older brother when I was young that sealed my future career path. The second was a gift to myself when I gave up the pretense there might be writers out there more life-changing to me than Dickinson.

A third favorite collection (and collectible) of mine, which I safeguard at home, is the Hogarth Press’ 24-volume "The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud." Published over a period of more than 20 years, the final volume to appear (in 1974) makes for fascinating reading in its own right with its separate lists of subjects, dreams, analogies and symbols. As an assistant professor I read all 24 volumes straight through. It’s true that we are what we read, or at least what we reread, so it feels rather personal to be sharing my bookshelf.

What’s on your summer reading list?

I’ll be gearing up to teach a new fall course on “Wilderness Tales.” I hope to finish two big biographies I began on a recent two-month wilderness hike out West — Donald Worster’s "A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir" and Douglas Brinkley’s "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America." Laura Dassow Walls’ "Henry David Thoreau: A Life" has also made the cut, along with Richard Power’s new novel "The Overstory." Who can resist Power’s motivating question: “If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us?”

Several new poetry books are calling to me. Kevin Young’s "Brown," Tracy K. Smith’s "Wade in the Water," and Jenny Xie’s "Eye Level" are all sitting on my bedside table now. Frank Bidart’s "Half-Light: Collected Poems: 1965-2018," which just won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, is a must. [Smith is Princeton’s Roger S. Berlind '52 Professor of the Humanities and Professor of Creative Writing and U.S. poet laureate; Xie is a 2008 Princeton alumna and 2018 recipient of the Theodore H. Holmes ’51 and Bernice Holmes National Poetry Prize awarded by the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Creative Writing.]

My most ambitious plan is to do a slow, deep, delirious read of Emily Wilson’s new translation of "The Odyssey," savoring two [of its] books a week, which will take me right through August. For academics, ironically, “leisure reading” is rarely leisurely, which is why the lost art of unhurried immersive reading is the experience I most crave these days, for my students and myself, in our increasingly fast-paced, vertigo-inducing world.

Since I also teach cinema I’ll be headed to the movies this summer. I’m most excited to see Debra Granik’s "Leave No Trace" (a wilderness film). And I expect I’ll be first in line for other indie films like David Mitchell’s "Under the Silver Lake," Desiree Akhaven’s "The Miseducation of Cameron Post," Boots Riley’s "Sorry to Bother You," Paul Dano’s "Wildlife," and Spike Lee and Jordan Peele’s "BlacKkKlansmen."

Some promising documentaries have caught my eye: Kimberly Reed’s "Dark Money," Rachel Dretzin’s "Far from the Tree," Tim Wardle’s "Three Identical Strangers" and Matt Tyrnauer’s "Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood." And let’s not forget, in the blockbuster category, Pixar’s "Incredibles 2," with a new supervillain called, wait for it, Screenslaver.

Books on Simon Gikandi's bookshelf

Simon Gikandi

Simon Gikandi

Simon Gikandi, the Robert Schirmer Professor of English

What are we looking at?

In looking around my office, I can now see that there is one thread connecting my work across periods and disciplines — the problem of the modern subject and what it means to live under the promises and perils of modernity. On this bookshelf in particular, I see three great works of fiction that teach us that living under a situation of emergency, one devoid of the rule of law and the claim to truth, is not normal: Gabriel García Márquez’s "One Hundred Years of Solitude," Salman Rushdie’s "Midnight Children" and Orhan Pamuk’s "Snow." They are great narratives of the beginnings and endings of states of emergency, the concealment of truth and its tragic consequences, the struggle of citizens to assert their rights, and the power of the imagination to act as an antidote to suffering. These are works I often turn to in my courses on the representation of suffering and the violation of human rights.

What's on your summer reading list?

My summer dealings have been determined to a large extent by the PIIRS Global Seminar that I’m teaching in Mauritius through July 20. The seminar is concerned with the peculiar character of African modernity and its emergence under conditions of slavery, indentureship and colonialism, but it is, above all, about the movement of peoples across the Indian Ocean and the making of new language communities. Coming to Mauritius has prompted me to think seriously about the role of islands in the bringing together of peoples. So, I’m reading or re-reading books about the making of island communities including Amitav Ghosh’s epic "Sea of Poppies," Derek Walcott’s "Omeros" and Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s “Odyssey."

Books on Eric Gregory's bookshelf

Eric Gregory

What are we looking at?

Despite appearances, I try to keep my shelves organized by author and discipline. I was on sabbatical this year, so that means they are more jumbled than usual, and that can be surprisingly helpful. In my research and teaching, I trespass academic fields by putting historically distant Christian traditions in conversation with contemporary moral and political debates. This shelf shows a smattering of works related to my forthcoming book on what we owe strangers in a global age — the working title is "The In-Gathering of Strangers: Global Justice and Political Theology." It is a philosophical book, examining tensions between moral obligations based on a common humanity and those particular loyalties that shape our lives, say as parent, friend or fellow citizen. The great thinkers on display — Cicero, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Kant, Hegel — had a lot to say about what these tensions reveal about human nature, politics and the possibility of moral progress, not to mention suffering and divine providence.

Big themes, but I also have been reading anthropologists and historians who put them in the context of everyday life. One here is Michael Barnett’s “Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism,” which tells the story of how shifting values — including compassion beyond borders — find expression in the complicated work of humanitarian action and institutions. Barnett chronicles the failures and contradictions of this modern revolution in moral sentiments. Interestingly, he argues that humanitarianism is a new form of “faith,” scrambling notions of sacred and secular. 

The figurine standing watch is a latter-day Augustinian: Martin Luther, a gift from a former student, and said to be the most popular Playmobil toy ever. Like our interpretations of him, he seems always on the move.

What’s on your summer reading list?

I hope to do more writing than reading this summer! But you can’t do one without the other. I am slowly rereading Cicero’s “On Duties” alongside plenty of Augustine. My academic list includes: Amanda Anderson, “Bleak Liberalism”; Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi, “Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile”; Stephen Bush, “Williams James on Democratic Individuality”; Jennifer Pitts, “Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire”; David Clough, “On Animals”; and Cathleen Kaveny (a 1984 alumna), “Ethics at the Edges of Law” (perhaps the first book dedicated to the religion department lounge at Princeton). 

On my personal list are books by three Princeton professors: Tracy K. Smith (the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor of the Humanities and professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts), “Wade in the Water: Poems”; John McPhee (Ferris Professor of Journalism), “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process”; and Yiyun Li (professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts), "Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life."

Also, Rohinton Mistry, “A Fine Balance”; Daniel James Brown, “The Boys in the Boat”; Alan Lightman, “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine”; and Heather Delancey Hunwick, “Doughnut: A Global History,” which sadly debunks a family lore which credits one of my ancestors with inventing the hole in the doughnut. I have young children, so no doubt there also will be a steady diet of books about dragons, superheroes and imaginary worlds. Just the thing for a professor of religion.

Books on Rosina Lozano's bookshelf

Rosina Lozano

Rosina Lozano

Rosina Lozano, associate professor of history

What is a favorite book on your shelf?

"Conflicts of Interest: The Letters of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton" compiles the surviving letters of a 19th-century Californian who wrote two novels that spoke of the hardships of the Californios — the landowning elite — after the United States took over their land in 1848. The letters are written in both Spanish and English and offer a unique perspective of a woman interested in politics and advocating for her rights and people.

As a historian I love to be in the archives and read the inner thoughts and private correspondence of individuals. It allows me to connect with a person who lived before I was even born and who had no idea that I would ever read their work.

Like an archive, this book offers a way in to the literary personality of Ruiz de Burton and for me that is often as exciting as a novel.

What's on your summer reading list?

My academic reading list is (as always) unrealistically long. After 10 years of working on my first book, "An American Language: The History of Spanish in the United States," I am excited to begin reading widely for my second book, tentatively titled, "Intertwined Roots: Mexican Americans and Native Americans in the Southwest." Most of the books that I am reading now focus on the interactions between Native Americans, Mexican Americans and Anglos in New Mexico and Colorado. Books I’m especially excited to read along this theme include Erika Perez’s "Colonial Intimacies," Paul Andrew Hutton’s "The Apache Wars" and David Wallace Adams’ "Three Roads to Magdalena."

I am a voracious novel reader in the summer and make it a rule not to keep lists of what I want to read. I love to slowly go through the library bookshelves (or online offerings) and pick novels or other books that look great that I have never heard of. I will admit that I am really looking forward to finding "There There" by Tommy Orange and Rita Moreno’s memoir on the shelf though. I am excited to begin a full summer of reading!

Books on Pedro Monteiro's bookshelf

Pedro Meira Monteiro

What is a favorite book on your shelf?

It's one book that's actually two books — "The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas" is a delightful novel by Machado de Assis, which has been translated into English a few times. On the shelf, you can picture another translation of it, with a strange title, "The Epitaph of a Small Winner." Whether you pick one or the other (help yourself!), this is a small gem of Brazilian literature. Imagine if Sterne had given life to his Tristram Shandy in Portuguese, during the 19th century, in a remote tropical empire among luxuriant trees, a pernicious elite, and an appalling number of African and Afro-Brazilian slaves. What an explosive combination that would be. And this is just what Machado de Assis is: a prolific creator of those “imaginary homelands” that Salman Rushdie referred to, when he praised Machado along with Gogol, Cervantes, Kafka and Melville. Yet I prefer what Susan Sontag once suggested: Being dead, the narrator created by Machado de Assis may stand for a point of view that cannot be accused of being provincial. To love Machado, she says, is a way to “become a little less provincial about literature.” Just read it.

What’s on your summer reading list?

It so happens that in the summer I will participate in the Paraty Literary Festival in Brazil, and I’ll moderate the conversation between two writers I greatly admire: Brazilian Geovani Martins and American Colson Whitehead. With regard to Whitehead, I’m planning to go beyond his wonderful “The Underground Railroad,” and I’m particularly curious to read all of his essays, as well as his early novels. Martins has been recently "discovered" by the mainstream publishing world after his participation in the Literary Festival of the Peripheries, a sort of insurgent response to the more official Paraty Literary Festival, of which he is an honorable guest this year. I’m reading his "O Sol na Cabeça" (literally, "the sun in the head"), an amazing collection of short stories, soon to be published in English.

Books on Mala Murthy's bookshelf

Mala Murthy

What is a favorite book on your shelf?

"Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior" is the biography of Seymour Benzer, a professor of biology at Caltech who is widely considered to have founded the field of neurogenetics, or the study of the genes underlying behavior (such as sleep, sex, communication, feeding, and learning and memory). It was written by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Jonathan Weiner while he was a visiting fellow at Princeton in the Department of Molecular Biology. Weiner also wrote the biography on Princeton’s own Peter Grant, the Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, emeritus, and his wife, Rosemary Grant, senior research biologist, emeritus, and senior biologist, ecology and evolutionary biology.

Benzer died in 2007. I did my postdoctoral work at Caltech, and was fortunate enough to overlap with him for a couple of years. He used the fruit fly (Drosophila) to make his discoveries.

In my lab at Princeton, we focus on how the brain mediates acoustic communication (production and perception of sounds), and we also use the fruit fly as a model. The technology has changed substantially from when Benzer was doing his work, but in many ways, the work we do is following in the line that he started. "Time, Love, Memory" is also wonderfully written, capturing the joy of a life in science, and I often give it as a gift to senior thesis students or graduate students in my lab.

What’s on your summer reading list?

Since I consume so much science writing during the day, I usually read fiction in the evenings before bed, and am always looking for good recommendations. Recently I started on two books recommended by a friend in the English department (and also a fellow parent at the charter school my children attend), Anne Cheng [professor of English and American studies and director of the Program in American Studies]. She recommended the amazing author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I am working on "Americanah" and "Half of a Yellow Sun."