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Friday, April 12, 2024

Five professors share their favorite books

Professors from different departments share their favorite non-academic reads

Just like their students, professors are indecisive — half of those contacted couldn’t decide what their all-time favorite non-academic book was. So here is everything close to it.  

Sociology Professor Erin Hamilton — “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer

Greer’s comic novel is described as satrically funny, but it somehow manages to weave in serious topics. At the start of the novel, the main character learns that his ex-boyfriend is about to get married and, to avoid being the politely-invited-but-unwanted-guest, the protagonist begins a literary tour around the world. 

“I loved this funny love story about a middle-aged man coming to terms with his life and career,” Hamilton said via email. “I related intensely to his realization that he’s not ‘all that’ — which I think is what middle-age is basically about — and enjoyed traveling with him around the world on his ‘book tour’ concocted to escape the humiliation and pain of his ex-boyfriend’s wedding. It was charming, it was funny, it was real.”

Hamilton admits that although she only read the book once, she did internet stalk the author afterwards. She recommends the book to her students.

“I would read it for pure enjoyment — to laugh and commiserate with another human being,” Hamilton said. “I would also read it because it is beautifully written, and the social world astutely observed. If you don’t take my word, take the Pulitzer’s! The book won the award in 2017.” 

Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor David Osleger — “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

A staple in all public school curriculum, this novel follows young Scout as she makes her way through her adolescent life. The book touches on important topics like racism, class and structural inequalities that are still relevant today. 

“Just having finished my third reading of the book (the first being in high school), it reminds me to remain open-minded about everyone because we seldom know all the details,” Osleger said via email.

The book focuses on Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, a well-respected lawyer in town, who defends Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of raping a young white woman. 

“The point-of-view through the innocent eyes of a pre-teen girl gives the book a purity of thought that is priceless,” Osleger said. “Also, “Scout” is just a cool name for a girl. If I had one instead of two sons, I would have lobbied my wife to name her that.”

Political Science Professor Robert Taylor — “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

Taylor keeps track of all the non-academic books he’s read on an Excel document: He rates them and logs comments, in true political science professor fashion. Although he couldn’t name a favorite book, he did share his top 12 favorite list of fictional works in the order that he’s read them. For this article, he chose to highlight “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, number five on his list. 

Taylor finds that the book aligns with today’s political movement. “Invisible Man” follows an unnamed narrator, a Black man, who wins a scholarship to an all-Black college. In order to receive the scholarship, however, he has to endure a humiliating competition for the pure joy and entertainment of his town’s white elites. 

“Its black narrator-protagonist demands recognition from a racist society,” Taylor said via email. “The phrase ‘see me,’ as an insistent command, serves as the work’s mantra. Note, however, that its mantra is not ‘see us.’”

“This is definitely not a work of black nationalism or even of black identity politics more generally,” Taylor continued. “Neither does the book find redemption in the “Brotherhood,” its shadowy stand-in for international progressivism and communism. Far from it. Racism, like communism, is just another kind of collectivism, another refusal to recognize and value the individual human being.”

Taylor cited evidence from the book to explain why it’s one of his favorites: “The protagonist’s task is therefore ‘not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals’ (p. 354).”

Design Professor Simon Sadler — “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth” by Chris Ware

Because Sadler isn’t entirely interested in reading outside of the job, he recommends a graphic novel — but he also admitted that he’s not a fan of graphic novels. With that said, because he just finished this novel, he said it’s been on his mind and is hard to forget. 

“For me as an architectural historian, it’s a graphically stunning exploration of Chicago in 1893 and a century later,”  Sadler said via email. “It’s a meditation, in passing, on race, sexuality, abuse, Americana.” 

Jimmy Corrigan is a quiet, 36-year-old man who shrinks himself into the world in order to not be noticed. He’s lived most of his life without a father, but when a letter comes in the mail, he can’t help but feel angry and hopeful at the same time. 

“If you’re interested in narrative technique — and oh, wow, wow, graphic design — it could well change what you think you know,” Sadler said. “We’re talking rabbit holes here. Portals. Physically it’s a test of eyesight. But now you’ve got me thinking about it, I’m going to buy Ware’s more recent book, ‘Building Stories,’ and give that a go too.”

Design Professor James E. Housefield — “Labyrinths” by Jorge Luis Borges 

Despite Housefield’s insistence that asking him to pick a favorite non-academic book is like asking a parent to pick their favorite child, he settled on “Labyrinths.

“Each of my contenders is the best for a certain moment,” Housefield said via email. “I have a logjam of favorites that are tied, including ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes, ‘Tristram Shandy’ by Laurence Sterne, and others that I love to re-read often.”

After considerable persuasion, he settled on a book. 

“Most recently I’ve been reading ‘Exhalation” by Ted Chiang,’ Housefield said. “I could argue that my favorite is the one I’m reading at any given moment. Chiang’s collection of short stories reminds me of my favorite in that type of writing, ‘Labyrinths,’ by Jorge Luis Borges.”

Labyrinths is a collection of short stories and essays written by Borges. 

“It’s my favorite because it shows how much fiction can build new worlds,” Housefield said. “More than that, it demonstrates how an elegant and intelligent storyteller can create exceptionally convincing worlds from a few well crafted lines of language. Borges also reminds us that inspiration comes from engaging with the creations of the past. In his essays, we see other creators through the eyes of a deeply creative writer.”

Although Housefield has never read the book cover to cover, he opens the book and does a quick re-read of some stories quite frequently — so much so that he has lost track.

“His works are manageable and magical at the same time,” Housefield said. I would hope that many will marvel at his ability to evoke a previously unimagined world in just a few words or pages. It’s not always easy – there may be struggle – but it is manageable and worth meeting Borges halfway.”

In a matter of a few pages, students can dive into a different story, and maybe that’s exactly what we need in our busy lives.

“Be patient if the language seems foreign, for that is part of the effect and

that strangeness inhabits the heart of the impact his writing can make,” Housefield said. “In our busy world we need to return to reading. Perhaps it will be easier to begin with short stories. Pro tip: Read his stories and parables out loud to a friend, or group of listeners.” 

Written By: Itzelth Gamboa — arts@theaggie.org


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