This winter break I’ve enjoyed two luxuries that worked well in tandem: our woodstove, and a stack of books I’m reading for the sheer enjoyment of them. Yes, okay, some of them relate to upcoming courses I’ll be teaching, but mostly, just because I had long blocks of uninterrupted time over the break to read and absorb. During the semester I almost never have time to read outside of my teaching, so it has been a delight. Here’s what I’ve had my nose in over the last couple of weeks.
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, Tony Horwitz. I was on a Tony Horwitz kick over the summer and read everything he’s ever written, on my Kindle app for iPhone, and then had to wait for the new one to come out mid-fall. What I like about his writing is the seamless blend of then-and-now and his ability to layer histories, especially in locations that are familiar to me. I grew up not far from Harper’s Ferry and in that liminal zone right around the Mason-Dixon line: not quite the South, but definitely not the North. A few years ago I read & enjoyed Russell Banks’s novel about John Brown, Cloudsplitter, and this makes a fine companion read.
The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring. Also reading this on on Kindle for iPhone, so my pace is slow because I’m digesting it in very small snatches. Also, sadly, the Kindle edition cuts off the bottoms of sentences every couple of pages with a frustrating hiccup in the flow of their argument. However, that’s not the authors’ fault and I have been a friend and fan of Clayton Christensen since I came up to Boston to attend college and he became an important informal mentor of mine at church and just in life in general. It’s been lovely to see his star rising with his innovation theory, and heartbreaking to watch him struggle to regain his vast capabilities after a recent stroke. The book argues, rather self-evidently, that not every college can be a Harvard, and that it serves higher education ill for them all to try to replicate its model. Their faith in online education seems misplaced to me, and while I applaud the curricular experiment going on at BYU-Idaho I don’t think it’s quite living up to its hype yet – so the jury is out on whether they’re on the right track. But coming on the heels of Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It, which I read earlier in the fall, I’ve appreciated following the conversation of higher-education innovative thinkers, and pondering how needed changes might come to higher ed in general, and/or my institution in particular.
No Constitutional Right to be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship Linda Kerber. This one veers on the course-related, since I’m teaching a course on the contested meanings of American citizenship in the spring semester, but I wouldn’t have read it if a colleague at JI hadn’t mentioned it (thx, Ben Park!), and it was worth it just for the deliciously suspenseful chapter on jury service. No, really.
Similarly, I’ve found myself glued to the pages of A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States, Melvin Urofsky and Paul Finkelman. Like the Kerber, I thought it would enhance my citizenship course and I’m also teaching a grad course in constitutional history of the US since 1877 so I imagined this would be my semi-secret “teach-from” book. If you like summaries of Supreme Court cases (and I do) with glimpses into the personalities on the Court woven into a synthetic narrative that’s only occasionally dry, this is a surprisingly gripping read.
I’ve started reading one of the two books my brother gave me for Christmas (thanks for mining my Amazon wish list, bro!), The Passport in America: The History of a Document, Craig Robertson. He’s a communications professor not a historian per se, so the book jumps around a bit in chronology, but is profusely illustrated with old passports which are jaw-droppingly different from today’s. Again, although I thought it was going to be useful in the citizenship course it’s proving a fascinating read on its own merits.
This one jumped off the bestseller shelf into my hands, which is unusual for me. And doubly unusual because I’m NOT a Stephen King fan. But I was intrigued by his fat new book, 11/22/63, a time-travel novel about going back to prevent the JFK assassination. It’s partly a love letter to the diner food, music and social landscape of the late 1950s/early 1960s, and partly a fairly conventional time travel story, but I devoured it in under 2 days despite its 1000-page heft…and the guy knows how to tell a story, I’ll grant that.
Finally, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, a book that got me through a very tough weekend, written by a dear friend and super-smart Mormon commentator, Jana Riess. It’s as terrific as its reviews say it is.
What’s coming up? Well, my reading will drop off precipitously in about a week when classes start up again, but here’s a couple of selections from the stack of to-reads:
The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love, Kristin Kimball – recommended and gifted by my sister, who says the author reminds her of me.
Weren’t No Good Times, Horace Randall William’s edited volume from the WPA slave narratives, a Christmas gift from my aunt.
And keeping with the WPA theme and my love of all things 1930s, The Food of a Younger Land, Mark Kurlansky (author of Cod and Salt): a compilation from the “America Eats” WPA project archives, including recipes. Mm; a gift from my brother, can’t wait to dive in.
And the books I’ll REALLY be reading over the spring semester, here’s what’s assigned for my courses (in addition to my standard US 2 textbook):
Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life
Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States
Richard Bellamy, Citizenship: A Very Short Introduction
Chafe, Sitkoff & Bailey, A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America
Moss, Moving On: The American People Since 1945
Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography
Hall and Huebner, Major Problems in American Constitutional History
Brook Thomas, Plessy v. Ferguson: Brief History with Documents
Waldo E. Martin Jr., Brown v. Board of Education: Brief History with Documents