Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2018 (May 16, 2018)

A Wave of Books, Just in Time for Summer

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May 15, 2018

Six Beloit faculty members talk about books that matter (plus a few they’re reading just for fun).

[Sp18] A Wave of Books 

Daniel Barolsky, Music

[Sp18] Favorite Books of Daniel Barolsky 

Must-Read in Your Field  

The Invention of “Folk Music” and “Art Music”: Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner
By Matthew Gelbart

All too often we think about categories of music in relatively fixed ways. Gelbart’s argument sheds light on the fundamental changes that took place in the 18th century when, concomitant with the rise of nationalism, conceptions of music shifted from function (e.g., music used for dance or for church) to origin (music identified by being, for instance, Scottish or, later, by a certain individual). As we see these changes taking place, we see the emergence of “folk music” and “art music” as categories that a) never previously existed b) are deeply interconnected to each other and c) have shaped how we view and value music today in all sorts of problematic and unreflective ways.

Favorite Book to Teach

The Glenn Gould Reader
Tim Page, editor

Glenn Gould was the ultimate provocateur, but in the kindest and funniest of ways. Like his wonderful and idiosyncratic performances, Gould’s prophetic writing pushes back at musical orthodoxies in ways that delight many, piss off many more, but ultimately challenge many of our deeply held beliefs about musical values and aesthetics.

For Pure Enjoyment 

Harpo Speaks!
By Harpo Marx with Rowland Barber

One of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. Harpo was modest, thoughtful, and really funny. The book offers a history of the Marx Brothers (whom I love) and a fascinating window into an urban, intellectual, artistic world (especially the Algonquin Round Table) that Harpo—even with his second-grade education—was a part of. 

Book That Changed the Way You Think  

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
By Ibram X. Kendi 

I was introduced to this book in a workshop on decolonizing pedagogies. No other book so clearly lays out the ways in which structural racism is embedded in every aspect of our history (including the ways history is told and not told), our law, our institutions, and our society. As a white male who has benefited from these structures, Kendi’s narrative pushes me, again and again, to recognize my own position and think of ways to challenge inequitable systems.

Robin Zebrowski, Cognitive Science

[Sp18] Favorite Books of Robin Zebrowski

Must-Read in Your Field

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
By Douglas R. Hofstadter

This is probably still the classic cognitive science book. It’s fairly old for a disciplinary book, and there have been about a million other valuable books written since 1979, but it’s the book that I read in college and it ignited my interest in the mysteries of cognition. Reading it gives one that flash of excitement and spark of insight that all great (and greatly written) books offer.

Favorite Book to Teach

Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence
By Andy Clark

For the past 10 years, I’ve been teaching Andy Clark’s Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence to one of my classes, and it’s definitely a contender for favorite. The technologies discussed are getting a bit dated, but Clark paints a picture of human beings as always entwined with our technologies. It is human nature to be altered, body and mind, by the tools we encounter (including written language). Students don’t always agree with the claims, but they’re always moved by the implications, and they love to learn about the state of emerging technologies and how they’ll impact their lives in the coming decades.

For Pure Enjoyment

The Stone Sky
By N.K. Jemisin

I just finished The Stone Sky, the third book in N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth series. I think every book in the series has won the Hugo or the Nebula (or both). The three-book series plays with time and narration in clever ways. It’s about a world where there are planet-wide geological events that happen every so often and usually result in enormous widespread destruction of life. There is a special breed of people who are able to manipulate the rocks (to prevent, or sometimes cause, such cataclysms). The book reaches across deep time to chronicle (and challenge) the history of both the people and the planet. There are deep allegories for racism throughout, which is one of the ways the book does so much work. On the surface, it’s a book about growing up, parenthood, oppression, and magic. And more.

Book That Changed the Way You Think 

Metaphors We Live By
By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Literally every book I’ve ever read changed the way I think at least somewhat, because that’s what books do! But I’ll offer one fiction and one non-fiction here. First, the non-fiction: Metaphors We Live By examines how our bodies play a constituting role in how we think, and about how language reveals deep truths about the structure of the mind. I had been studying cognitive science for about six years when I read it, and it completely upended everything I thought I knew about the mind. I went on to study with Mark Johnson because it was such a meaningful shift in my thinking.

[Fiction] Solaris
Stanislaw Lem

Solaris had an early impact on me during a formative time. The premise involves an alien planet with an intelligent ocean. It was genuinely the first fiction I read that really challenged what I thought were necessary and sufficient conditions for being an intelligent creature. As someone who studies artificial intelligence, this is exactly the kind of challenge that excites me. I genuinely believe this story made me a stronger AI researcher. 

Christi Clancy, English

[Sp18] Favorite Books of Christi Clancy 

Must-Read in Your Field

The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction
Lex Williford and Michael Martone, editors

This is a staple in my introduction to creative writing class. I’m obsessed with the craft of the short story, and this anthology features many of the modern masters, including ZZ Packer, Richard Bausch, Kelly Link, Mary Gaitskill, Junot Diaz, and Charles Baxter. Even though I’ve read many of the stories several times, they are so beautifully written, carefully constructed, and dense with meaning that I always find something new to appreciate and admire. The stories have always provoked discussion—especially A.M. Homes’ “A Real Doll,” about a kid who falls in love with his sister’s Barbie. We don’t have time to read all the stories in a semester, so I encourage students not to sell this book, hopeful they’ll keep reading. 

Favorite Book to Teach

The Virgin Suicides
By Jeffrey Eugenides

I specialize in suburban literature and eco-criticism, so this spooky novel is right up my ... cul de sac. The story, as the title suggests, is ostensibly about the beautiful yet quietly miserable Lisbon sisters who commit suicide, one after another. That’s a huge conceit, but really, Eugenides uses the suicides as a vehicle to provide social commentary on the tony suburb of Detroit where the girls live(d), and the ways in which their suicides offend the status quo. The literal and figurative borders erected in the suburbs become more visible—and ridiculous—as the suburban denizens fail to guard against the “real world” implications of the tragedies. This is symbolized by dirt, decay, and pollution. We see peeling paint, dirty walls, industrial fog, sand flies, and Dutch Elm disease. (The book is told from the perspective of a collective conscience, which is really cool.) Many of my students miss the loaded social and political commentary on the first read because they are so caught up in the “hook” of the suicides. 

For Pure Enjoyment

All My Puny Sorrows
By Miriam Toews

My bookseller friend told me to read it, but he warned me not to read anything about it first, not even the book jacket copy, because I’d think it would be too dark. Now that I’ve read the novel, I see what he means. Yes, Toews explores dark themes, but the narrator, Yoli, is so real and funny, so well-intentioned but messed-up, that I sincerely ached for her to be real so we could be BFFs. I won’t say what the book is about, but I will say that it has incredible emotional range. One moment, Yoli’s sister Elf’s Italian boyfriend visits Elf in the hospital: “He spoke to her in Italian, ma cosa ti e successo, tesoro, but she shook her head, no, don’t, as though the language of her heart had no place here or that it reminded her of beauty and love and laughter and those things were bullets now, sharp teeth and shards of glass and cheap plastic toys you step on in the nighttime.” Look how much is accomplished in that sentence! One minute our heart breaks, and a few pages later, Toews makes us laugh. When Yoli buys a new home, she writes, “The house is close to a polluted lake, wedged in between a funeral home, a mental hospital, and a slaughterhouse. Something for each of us, said my mother over the phone when I’d described it to her.” Something for each of us, indeed.

Book That Changed the Way You Think

Birds of America
By Lorrie Moore

This book changed the way I think about storytelling, and I have [professor of English] Shawn Gillen to thank for first recommending this writer to me. Moore is one of America’s most famous and admired short story writers, and, like Toews and A.M. Homes, she’s got a wicked but doleful sense of humor, like icing on a cupcake laced with arsenic. Not until I read this collection (and everything else she’s written) did I realize that stories don’t have to have big plots. I’ve always struggled with plot, maybe because I’m a peace-keeping middle child, but Moore shows how a lot can happen when a character experiences a moment where she sees the world a bit differently—a chord change instead of a bomb blast. Reading Moore helped me discover my own voice as a writer. 

John Kaufmann, Theatre

[Sp18] Favorite Books of John Kaufmann 

Must-Read in Your Field

The Empty Space
By Peter Brook

Brook’s passionate writing challenges artists to trust that simple human storytelling can transform lives and the world. I saw Peter Brook’s Hamlet in Seattle years ago, and it was a joy to see his aesthetics in action. 

Favorite Book to Teach

By Paula Vogel

This is a new play that chronicles the theatrical journey of “God of Vengeance,” a 1907 play that featured Broadway’s first lesbian kiss. I look for new plays to explore with students in directing classes, and this play offered an abundance of history, theatrical gifts, and unique production challenges. 

For Pure Enjoyment

A Wrinkle in Time
By Madeleine L’Engle

My 6-year-old daughter and I are reading A Wrinkle in Time out loud together. It’s been a joy to experience it through her eyes, stopping often to discuss words or fantastical concepts and characters.

Book That Changed the Way You Think

A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre
By Anne Bogart

I know this book changed the way I think because I have internalized so many of its ideas. I might be teaching an acting class or directing a play, and identify one of my core theatrical values. When I go back to Bogart’s writing, I am repeatedly reminded where these values first took root in me. 

Ron Watson, Political Science, Health and Society

[Sp18] Favorite Books of Ron Watson

Must-Read in Your Field

Politics in Time: History, Institutions and Social Analysis
By Paul Pierson

Pierson delves into the concept of path dependency and why it is so important for understanding action/inaction in achieving social and political change.

Race, Ethnicity, and Health - A Public Health Reader
Thomas LaVeist and Lydia Isaac, editors

This edited volume offers an excellent overview of health disparities from a wide range of scholars and perspectives. 

Favorite Book to Teach

American Government in Black and White
By Paula McClain and Steven Tauber

I love teaching this book in my introductory political science course, as it provides a more accurate portrayal than most textbooks of how race and racism have shaped American political life since the nation’s inception.

For Pure Enjoyment

Ready Player One
Ernest Kline

The story takes place in the near future, where everyone plugs into an online virtual world called “the OASIS” to escape the awfulness of life in an unending economic recession—and to become the winner of a contest for untold riches launched by the deceased founder of the OASIS. Lots of references to nostalgic pop culture from my childhood in the ’70s and ’80s made this a fun read for me.

Book That Changed the Way You Think

There are actually four:

  • Roots: The Saga of an American Family
    By Alex Haley

    This book opened my eyes to the horrors of American slavery, and to the importance of honoring all of my ancestors and what they endured.  

  • Stranger in a Strange Land
    By Robert A. Heinlein

    After reading this book, I never looked at religion the same way again. 

  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
    Graham Coleman, Thupten Jinpa, Gyurme Dorje, editors

    I found this book transformative. It taught me to be aware in my daily life of being overly attached to things that ultimately don’t matter. 

  • Double Star
    By Robert A. Heinlein

    This is another classic from Heinlein, and reading it challenged my understanding of traditions, morality, and family. 

Darlington Sabasi, Economics

[Sp18] Favorite Books of Darlington Sabasi 

Must-Read in Your Field

The Wealth of Nations
By Adam Smith

Adam Smith is referred to as “the father of modern day economics.” His book lays the foundation on understanding economics. He clearly explains how the “invisible hand” drives supply and demand, about the role of division of labor and specialization in wealth creation, the benefits of trade, and many other economics concepts. This book provides the fundamental basis on which several economic theories emerge, and studying economics is incomplete without reading it.  

Favorite Book to Teach

Principles of Finance with Excel
By Simon Benninga and Tal Mofkadi

This book has both theory and application. Excel is an important tool used in building financial models and in finance decision-making. By combining theory with the practical tools in Excel, I am enjoying teaching this book. The spreadsheet tools developed along with the theory, in addition to numerous real life examples provided, will be used by students long after they graduate. Through working on problems in Excel, students seem to better understand the theory. 

For Pure Enjoyment

The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics
By William Easterly

This book is very intriguing and thought provoking, and provides answers to questions about the aid and growth nexus. In addition, this book provides numerous examples of how failure to follow basic economic principles, such as people responding to incentives, leads to policy failures.

Book That Changed the Way You Think

The Secret
By Rhonda Byrne

Reading this book and learning about the law of attraction—what you think is what you attract—and the importance of gratitude and visualization, changed how I think in so many ways. It made me very conscious of my thoughts and to think positively and to believe in myself. Since reading this book, I have prescribed it to many, if not all, of my friends. The question I always get is, “Why are you always positive minded?” and my response is almost always, “you need to read The Secret to understand why.”

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