Hot Reads for Cold Weather
December 21, 2011
As winter temperatures drive us indoors, five faculty members from Dickinson’s English department share their picks for good reads on a snowy day—and for those looking to finish up last-minute holiday shopping, these books also make great gifts.
Adrienne Su, associate professor of English and poet-in-residence
My picks are both books of poems that have strong narrative threads. In Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, the poet remembers her father, who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s not only an elegy but also an examination of the times we live in. Meanwhile, C.D. Wright’s One With Others confronts the author’s experiences in the civil rights era, in her home state of Arkansas. The collection mixes genres in unexpectedly seamless ways: it’s poetry, but it integrates elements of prose memoir.
David Ball, assistant professor of English
Donovan Hohn's Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, which was published this year, is a great holiday read.
Hohn is a former high-school English teacher and contributing author at Harper's (he's now the features editor at GQ) who becomes a citizen investigator into the story of a shipping container full of plastic bath toys that was swept overboard in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He begins by interviewing beachcombers and environmentalists as a kind of global treasure hunt and gets gradually sucked into the wider story, investigating the science of ocean currents, the production of the toys in China, the economics of global trade and distribution, and the cultural history of the yellow ducky phenomenon. Ultimately it becomes a tale about the relationships between people and objects and how those relationships are changing in the 21st-century global marketplace—and it’s one told with a great deal of humanity and humor. It made me see the material world around us as rife with unexplored stories.
It's also the perfect segue for a similarly superlative reading experience: Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. It’s another narrative about global trade in the modern world that is at the same time an adventure story, a quasi-scientific treatise, and a meditation on how modernity is changing our social and cultural norms. Like Moby-Duck, it is filled with warm and at times riotous humor, and knowing you're meant to laugh throughout can take some of the intimidation out of a rewarding reading experience that is too often though of as a kind of Everest that only certain readers should attempt to climb. Put together, they make for a fabulous holiday read, especially if your plans take you anywhere near the ocean. And when the narrator is wet and miserable, you're warm and dry.
Carol Ann Johnston, associate professor of English and Martha Porter Sellers Chair of Rhetoric and the English Language
Nox (right) is a book—or more of a box—of poetry by Anne Carson, memorializing her brother. It will require more taking apart and examining than any ordinary book, so I will do that over break, at a table.
I've also become fascinated recently by the poetic manuscripts for George Herbert's The Temple, and I have a facsimile of his Tanner manuscript, that is housed in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, that I want to read. This manuscript was copied from the original sent to Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding religious community in 1633 upon Herbert's death. Ferrar's nieces made the copy, and it is said to be one of the most beautiful manuscripts in English. They also made some crucial copying errors. A second manuscript of The Temple, the Williams manuscript, is 15 years earlier than the Tanner, with emendations by Herbert. Scholars are still puzzling over the two manuscripts and trying to figure out which best represents Herbert's intention.
B. Ashton Nichols, professor of English language and literature and Walter E. Beach '56 Distinguished Chair in Sustainability Studies
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt is the remarkable story of a book: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius. Here is one book, like so many early texts, that could have been lost to history but for the efforts of Poggio Bracciolini, a Renaissance polymath. Bracciolini, who was once a secretary to the Pope, was also a humanist thinker, an antiquarian collector and a book lover. He single-handedly rescued what may have been the only surviving copy of Lucretius in the library of a monastery and, more importantly, saw that copies of the work made their way back into European culture. The result was the establishment of the materialist view of the world—everything is made of tiny bits of stuff (like atoms)—without any spiritualist hocus-pocus. This worldview became the foundation of modern science and led, in Greenblatt's view, directly down the path to Darwin and Freud, among many others. This is a book for anyone who loves a cracking good yarn but who also cares about history, philosophy and The Way Things Are (another translation of Lucretius's title).
Four Fish by Paul Greenberg offers us the biographies of four fish, the life stories of four examples of what his subtitle calls “The Future of the Last Wild Food.” We learn that a single female salmon can produce thousands upon thousands of offspring—many more than any cow or pig—making her one of the most efficient protein producers in the world. We learn that European sea bass—also known as branzino (Italy), loup de mer (France) and spigola (Spain)—is actually the result of two millennia of selective breeding and scientific research. Finally, we learn that just these four fish, those first two plus cod and tuna, may hold the secret to a kind of food farming that can provide almost all of the "meat" required to feed the world's hungry people. Greenberg writes with a clear-cut journalistic style that makes science easy to understand and keeps his readers interested, even when he is describing the complex legal history of the protection of marine life or the ways to dispose of salmon waste. His book will help you decide which fish you can consume without guilt and which fish may need our protection if they are going to retain viable places on our dinner menus or in our oceans.
Wendy Moffat, professor of English
I'm reading Erik Larson’s new nonfiction book, In the Garden of Beasts, about the American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. I would also recommend Jane Austen's Persuasion for a great, unexpectedly mature love story and The Year of the Flood, by our most recent Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholar, the great Margaret Atwood.