Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 2000
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JUNE 2000



Actually, not all that easy, as we found after asking more than two dozen Hopkins academics: What do you plan to read between now and September?
H U M A N I T I E S    A N D    T H E    A R T S

When the Readin' is Easy

By Dale Keiger
Illustrations by Dan Yaccarino

The top of my bookcase is reserved for volumes I've yet to read, the shelving equivalent of an on-deck circle. Last night I counted the books there and found that 48 await my attention. They range from Robert Fagles's recent translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey to Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha to Richard Holmes's biography of Coleridge (Vol. I). I espy Robertson Davies, Harold Bloom, William Gaddis, Paul Theroux, Wallace Stegner, Tobias Wolff, and a book that one of my students attempted, unsuccessfully, to plagiarize last year. I may be the last reader of science who hasn't yet tackled Chaos by James Gleick, and I note with embarrassment that a James Purdy novel that I received as a gift 14 years ago is still there, unattended.

Book people stock up on things to read later, and "later" often means summer. The New York Times Book Review publishes a "summer reading" special issue, bookstores create beach displays, and publishers issue books in the spring that they hope will become the buzz of the sunny months. People on an academic calendar anticipate time to examine, unhurriedly, a book or two or 10 that will remind them of why they love to read.

Shed those workaday stresses by living vicariously through the lives of men in peril. At least that's the strategy of Edward Miller, CEO Johns Hopkins Medicine, is planning to pursue this summer. Among his picks: Sebastian Junger's A Perfect Storm, and F.A. Worsley's Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure.
Book people also want to know what other book people are reading. So we approached 30 or so bibliophiles and biblioholics at Hopkins and asked the following: "Presuming an ideal summer in an ideal world, what do you plan to read between now and September?" We heard from a lot of people, some of them two or three times. The question was met with enthusiasm sometimes tinged with wistfulness. Professor of history Ron Walters wrote to us: "The whole idea of reading for fun seems like such a wonderful, far-fetched fantasy. Most of my summer reading is going to be dissertation chapters. One of the sad things about my kind of academia is that we come to regard books as tools and only rarely read them for the beauty of the language."

Everyone seemed to give our question serious consideration, and for that we thank them. More than one wrote, "I hope this list is okay." (We promise not to pass judgment.) Our respondents plan to read in several languages and they have catholic tastes, though rarely did those tastes extend to mass-market pulp fiction. At least, few would admit it. This crowd's idea of a beach book is the new Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf, though Thomas Harris's Hannibal and the popular nautical novels of the late Patrick O'Brien made a few compendia. We came across books we've read, books we've never heard of, and books we feel guilty for never having opened. And we found that several of our respondents were as curious to see what their workmates were up to as we were. Said one Homewood professor, "I look forward to discovering my colleagues' secret obsessions."

I'm not the only one who reserves a separate shelf for books yet to be read. Geoffrey Wright, director of Peabody Conservatory's computer music studio, has one too. At the moment, his contains only 26 volumes (slacker), but it could be read as a summary of his present life. He's just bought a country house and sees a lot of rabbits, so he means to read Watership Down, by Richard Adams, surely the only best-selling novel about bunnies, unless you count all that Peter Rabbit stuff. Wright's wife is Korean; on the shelf is P. Hyun's Koreana. His interests in computers, sound technology, and music explain Toward a New Music: Music and Electricity (C. Chavez), Beyond Orpheus: Studies in Musical Structure (D. Epstein), and Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. Wright's had respiratory problems since a child. Thus, Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing by B. K. S. Iyengar.

Take a break from the erudite... Okay, so Thomas Harris's Hannibal isn't quite on part with Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf, but this latest update about the cannibal we love to be sickened by might prove a relaxing choice for that weekend at the lake.
As mentioned, the new Beowulf made more than one list, including that of Roger Brunyate, director of Peabody's opera department. He recalls first reading it, "painfully," while a student at Cambridge in England. He studied Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, he says, "as a kind of minor--by no means my most brilliant success," and looks forward to the new translation in part because the publisher elected to accompany each page of the English text with the original Anglo-Saxon. Brunyate still has his student copies of Henry Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer (1882) and Student's Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon (1896).

Beowulf will, perhaps, prep Brunyate for his major summer project: "Last summer, my wife Mina and I bought different editions of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Flush with my success and enjoyment in tackling that, I intend to go on to Anna Karenina this summer."

Brunyate was not the only summer reader intent on returning to previously read volumes. "One book I've wanted to reread for many years," says Romance languages professor Walter Stephens, "is Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma. I read it two or three times between sophomore and junior years." Daniel Weiss, professor of history of art, reports, "Every few years I like to reread The Great Gatsby." Sara Castro-Klarén, also a professor of Romance languages, wants to renew her acquaintanceship with Hopscotch, by Julio Cortazar. Sociologist Andrew Cherlin plans to pick up Joseph Heller's Catch-22 again: "I read this more than 30 years ago and have forgotten much of it. I was intrigued to see it show up on a list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century." Jean McGarry, chair of The Writing Seminars, says, "Because I'm teaching Proust's Swann's Way in the fall, I'll start through Remembrance of Things Past for the third time. When Colette read it, she said, 'I go in one end and come out the other.' It's not quite that fast for me, [but] oddly, it's one of the few books, long or short, that I remember very well." One is tempted to quiz her on that (In the Moncrief translation, what does Mme. Swann say to Mme. Cottard about the doctor on pg. 133 of Within a Budding Grove?), but she is one's faculty boss so one does not.

For Alfred Sommer, dean of the School of Public Health, part of the warm-weather months will be spent on the wine-dark sea with Odysseus, via the pages of The Odyssey. Some time ago, he elected to reread The Iliad. Apparently a thorough man, Sommer reports, "After sitting for an hour in my favorite bookstore, 'trying out' eight different translations, the Fagles clearly hit the mark. Modern enough to move quickly along but still poetic--without the froth of Chapman or Lattimore. Fagles's translation of The Odyssey has received even better reviews."

Uncork a bottle of classic Chianti... and settle down with Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, the account of an unlikely season by a lesser Italian team. That's the advice of Romance languages professor P. M. Forni, "a besotted-by- soccer Italian."
Much of the fun of examining these lists entailed coming across titles we weren't familiar with. Carol Burke of The Writing Seminars named Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood, a novel about a young woman who ventures to Paris, hoping to meet James Baldwin. "Youngblood began her career as a writer of plays," Burke explains. "In 1997, she published her first novel, Soul Kiss." Assistant professor of classics Matthew Roller came up with The Footnote: A Curious History by Anthony Grafton: "We scholars love to read about our own practices of reading and writing, and the footnote is one of our most ubiquitous and valuable props. Almost everyone I know has already read Grafton's little book. I feel left out." Dean of engineering Ilene Busch-Vishniac sounded a similar note: "I intend to read the 'Disc World' books by Terry Pratchett. My family has read all of these and I feel left out of dinner conversations and in-jokes." (One contributor to the website noted this about one of Pratchett's novels: "It takes a bit to get into it because it starts off by describing this world as being a flat disk carried on the back of four giant elephants who, in turn, are on top of an enormous turtle. Don't ask.") Professor of Romance languages P. M. Forni contributed The Castle of Fratta, written in the 1850s by Ippolito Nievo. Forni describes it as "the story of the upbringing, the coming of age, and the decline of the first-person narrator, Carlino Altoviti. It is both a psychological and historical novel."

As with Busch-Vishniac, family influenced Hopkins chaplain Sharon M. K. Kugler. She plans to read Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter ("This book was given to me on my birthday this year by my oldest daughter, Emily. She is 15 and is a voracious reader. I cannot tell you what a blessing it is to have one's child value books.") and At Weddings and Wakes by Writing Seminars professor Alice McDermott. ("I come from an Irish Catholic family and have been amazed by McDermott's dead-on handling of the nuances of this kind of family journey.")

One catches a hint of the sort of summer--for better or worse-- anticipated by certain lists. History of science professor Stuart Leslie laments, "To be honest, I'll be lucky to get any summer reading done at all! At least nothing except boring scholarly books for research and teaching." Louis Galambos, professor of history, adds, "Half of my reading will involve skimming dreary academic things for this or that dreary academic thing that I will be writing." But he does hope to reserve some vacation time for Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power. He'd previously read Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, prompting him to say, "It was an excellent example of why most of the most popular nonfiction these days is done by journalists or former journalists. They can write."

Escape your own family's problems... by losing yourself in such novels as At Weddings and Wakes, by Writing Seminars professor Alice McDermott. Hopkins chaplain Sharon M. K. Kugler, herself the product of an Irish Catholic upbringing, is amazed by McDermott's "dead-on-handling of the nuances of this kind of family journey."
Edward Miller, CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, plans a summer of men in peril, at least vicariously. Two of the three volumes on his list were A Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger's best-seller about a doomed fishing boat caught in an enormous maelstrom, and Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure, F. A. Worsley's account of Ernest Shackleton's horrific expedition to Antarctica. Richard McCarty, the new dean of Arts and Sciences, inherited office shelves full of books by Hopkins faculty, alumni, and trustees. "I am looking forward to the prospect of finding out more about what my colleagues do," he says, adding, diplomatically, "I could supply names of books and authors, but I might be put in a somewhat awkward position." No doubt by the titles he does not elect to read.

Professor of physics and astronomy Julian Krolik selects titles that "exercise the parts of my brain that don't get used when I'm doing physics." This summer, he'd like to exercise his mind with Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965, the second volume of Taylor Branch's biography of Martin Luther King, and with Sherwin Nuland's How We Die, a physician's account of what actually happens when we reach the end of life. Krolik concedes the latter is a "quirkier choice." Part of the fascination, he says, is "the problem of infinite causal regress. Someone dies because the heart stopped beating, but that's because it was weakened by an infection, but that's because a different disease undercut the immune system, and so on, presumably all the way back to birth." (Does that sound all that different from thinking about physics and astronomy?)


"Half of my reading will involve skimming dreary academic things for this or that dreary academic thing that I will be writing."
-Louis Galambos, professor of history

"Most of my summer reading is going to be dissertation chapters. One of the sad things about my kind of academia is that we come to regard books as tools and only rarely read them for the beauty of the language."
-Ron Walters, professor of history

"To be honest, I'll be lucky to get any summer reading done at all! At least nothing except boring scholarly books for research and teaching."
-Stuart Leslie, history of science professor

The beach, or at least sand, came up in only two submissions. Neil Hertz, of the Hopkins Humanities Center and the English Department, first noted, "For English teachers, the category of 'summer reading' makes no sense--we just keep reading, season in, season out." But then he listed C. M. Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta, which he has read before: "I still have the two volumes, with the original interleaved beach sand." For Glenn Schwartz, assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies, his summer work tends to dictate his taste in literature: "I have ample time to catch up on my reading during the summer, since I'm usually in Syria doing archaeological fieldwork, and there's little else to do when it's time to relax. I usually go to a second-hand bookstore before I go and load up on hefty paperbacks. Particular favorites are Victorian novels, since their world is the opposite of the hot and dusty environment I find myself in. Reading Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky (it's about tired and sick Westerners adrift in the Sahara) while on an unusually hot and uncomfortable expedition in eastern Turkey was a spectacularly bad idea."

Some lists revealed long-held enthusiasms. Solomon Snyder, professor of neuroscience, says, "I'd like to read Maynard Solomon's biography of Mozart [Mozart: A Life]. Why? I love biography as people have always fascinated me far more than things--that's why I became a psychiatrist. Mozart is my musical hero and music has long been my passion." Forni, of Romance languages, who describes himself as "a besotted-by-soccer Italian," plans Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, the account of an unlikely season by a lesser Italian team.

Reading the various submissions, I could feel hope: hope for time to actually read these books, and hope that they are as good as advertised, or as good as remembered. But there's something inherently optimistic about a summer reading list. I'd bet a week's pay that more than a few of our respondents have already bought the books on their lists, determined that this summer they will indeed read them. I have those 48 volumes staring down at me, but I notice that has discounted Beowulf by 50 percent, and has taken 30 percent off the price of the new Francine Prose novel, Blue Angel. Can I justify pushing my list up to 50? Somebody stop me.

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine and a visiting associate professor in The Writing Seminars. He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected]. And yes, he did buy Beowulf and Blue Angel. For a complete listing of summer reading picks from more than two dozen Johns Hopkins professors, visit the magazine's website at: