Spring 2006, Vol. 14, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

What We Are Reading

What books are our colleagues across the campus reading? Letters will be including in our pages a new feature in which we ask our colleagues to share with us their insights regarding two books that they have recently read or revisited.

William Caferro, associate professor of history: Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1759–1767). This book changed me from a math and science person to a humanities person. I read it again and again, and laugh anew. It plays with the reader and with the whole novelistic form. It is learned but does not take itself seriously; it gives insights into human nature, but is utterly absurd; the presentation is digressive, the writing style discursive. It is, in short, the perfect prelude to an academic career. I have often wanted to meet Uncle Toby.

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston, 1944). There is to my mind no analysis of economic history that is more thought-provoking than Polanyi’s. His take on the medieval economy, brief and succinct, raises profound questions about the structure and scope of financial matters then, and their connection to today. His stress on the importance of governmental policy, his suspicion of “free” markets, has encouraged me to look beyond the traditional explanations, beyond the all-consuming influence of scholars like Henri Pirenne. What is unique about the book is that it has made me reexamine not only the period I study, but the world I live in—the world of growing international trade associations and advocates of global free markets.

Barbara Hahn, Distinguished Professor of German: Wolfgang Büscher, Deutschland, eine Reise (Berlin, 2005). A journalist, Büscher traveled along the many borders of Germany, borders that have become entangled in a difficult, even murderous history. He simply asked who lives there, how they relate to people on the other side, and what border relations, when seen up close, are actually like. This is a personal book, full of encounters, but for that all the more illuminating.

Joachim Radkau, Max Weber: Die Leidenschaft des Denkens (Hamburg, 2005). Billed (falsely) as the first comprehensive biography of Max Weber, this is an infuriating book. A senior historian at the University of Bielefeld, Radkau both identifies uncritically with Max Weber and trivializes the drive behind Weber’s thinking to compensation for his sexual impotence. Weber’s intellectual problems, a defining moment of modernity, are thus psycho-banalyzed.

Gregg Horowitz, associate professor of philosophy: T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven, 2001). This book, like the one that follows, is concerned with why a version of the taboo on graven images has returned to the heart of artistic practices in the twentieth century. Why can’t we make representational pictures anymore, Clark asks, in the pursuit of sensuous experiences? On almost every page, this immensely rich book forces one to think differently about what’s in a picture.

Eric Santner, The Psycho-pathology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig (Chicago, 2001). Santner is perhaps the best literary reader of Freud today, and in this book, which brings Freud and Rosenzweig together in startling ways, Santner pursues the cultural significance of the taboo on graven images. The “psychotheology of life” is vivid in the space where images ought to be but no longer can be, or can be only in memory.

Catherine Molineaux, assistant professor of history: Richard Cullen Rath, How Early America Sounded (Ithaca, 2003). Rath asks us to hear early American societies—to listen to church bells, to the voices of Thunderbirds, to the percussive sounds of violins. Although the book tends to read texts as though they were direct transcripts of sound—rather than as discursive sites at which sound and its meanings were constructed—this is a valuable work that asks us to understand history as taking place in sound, about sound, and through sound.

Kenneth R. Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement: Maritime Enterprise and the Genesis of the British Empire 1480–1630 (Cambridge, 1984). Revisiting this classic study of the first British Empire reminded me of the pleasure of narrative and the power of a good story. Andrews vividly depicts the overwhelmingly disastrous early voyages of English merchants, showing how the first British Empire was not inevitable, despite “the glory of Elizabethan legend and nationalist propaganda.” The seamlessness of his story about a period full of confusion and uncertainty is a provocative experience in this postmodern era.

Cecelia Tichi, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English: John Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (New York, 2005). Barry shows prodigious research in disclosing the social history of a momentous event that was hastened by a mix of political ambitions, paranoia, ignorance, and disregard for medical expertise. I’m also an admirer of Barry’s previous book, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (New York, 1998).

Anthony Shadid, Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War (New York, 2005). This work is an Iraqi journalist’s effort—beyond the cocoon of the Green Zone—to reveal how the various peoples of Iraq have coped with Saddam and the U. S. invasion and occupation.

Letters Archive Index

For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.

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