Posts Tagged ‘Books’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Many people undoubtedly have found it strange how much history has been in the news lately. Whether it is the Confederate monuments being taken down in New Orleans or the fact that Frederick Douglass and Andrew Jackson were trending on Twitter recently, historical topics are hot right now. But truthfully, Americans have always been contentious about our history, since our history is…well…contentious. Topics like the Civil War or Jackson’s role in ‘The Trail of Tears’ will spark lively, sometimes angry, disagreement.

However, there are certain historical events that mainstream Americans generally agree upon. One such non-contentious event is the Holocaust. The American public, pop-culture and politicians for the last 40 years have universally depicted the Holocaust as THE horrific event of modern times. Case closed.  No discussion needed.  For 20th century Americans, Nazi Germany has been the quintessential ‘bad guy’ of  history. We have taken this so far that the era of the Holocaust and the event itself is in danger of being portrayed in simplistic political bromides. It is easy, if no less true and unthinking, to state that Nazi Germany and Hitler were irredeemably evil. The murder of Europe’s Jews was Nazi Germany’s most horrendous crime. Who would argue with that?

This is why the last four months have been so disturbing.  Since taking power in January, the Trump Administration has had not one…but TWO ‘Holocaust’ controversies.  First, there was the strange, and evidently intentional, Holocaust Remembrance Day statement issued by President Trump which did not specify Nazi Germany’s specific war on European Jewry. Then, in April, Press Secretary Sean Spicer stuck his foot in his mouth by claiming that Hitler ‘didn’t even gas his own people’, unlike Syrian President al-Assad. After immediately being called on this outrageously false statement, Spicer sounded even more like an idiot when he referred (I assume) to extermination camps as ‘Holocaust centers’.

What is going on?  Some, like Holocaust historian and famous scholar of Holocaust denial Debra Lipstadt felt that the Trump White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement was a classic case of ‘soft denialism’.  On the other hand, most commentators believed that Spicer’s slip-ups simply pointed to incredible historical ignorance. However, such ignorance and ‘soft denialism’ are not mutually exclusive.  Whether or not Lipstadt is correct in her assessment of Trump’s statement, such ‘denialism’ does exist in certain corners, and it will become easier to peddle to the general public as their inevitable ignorance of the past created by passing time increases.

‘Never forget’ can easily become an unthinking slogan, but that makes it no less true. So, with these notions in mind, I feel it is important to provide a quick reading list of books all Americans should read about the Holocaust. These are 15 works that any one with a passing interest in the topic can pick and read today.

  1. Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume 1 and The Years of Persecution and Volume 2, The Years of Extermination. Friedländer’s highly readable classic account. A great place to start for a thorough overview.515XRWk2Q6L._AC_UL320_SR214,320_
  2. Peter Hayes, Why: Explaining the Holocaust. A book that was just published a couple months ago. Deals with the big ‘why’ questions people always ask regarding the Holocaust. Does so with clear, jargon-free language. Read this after Friedländer’s workhayes
  3. Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris and Hitler: 1936-1945, Nemesis. Kershaw’s massive two part biography is still generally considered to be the definitive explanation of Hitler’s life and worldview.kershaw
  4. Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.  Though 30 years old at this point, still a groundbreaking take on why people commit ‘evil’ acts.browning
  5. Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience.  Sereny was a journalist who had the opportunity to interview Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka.  Her book investigating the man is fascinatingly horrible.sereny
  6. Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. A recent book that sheds light on a topic ignored by many previous historians: Women’s role in genocide.lower
  7. Primo Levi, Survival at Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved.  An Italian Jew, Levi survived the war and produced some of the most important writings of the 20th century.the-complete-works-of-primo-levi-book-cover
  8. Viktor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness, 2 Volumes.  Klemperer was a German Jew who chronicled life in Nazi Germany from the beginning of 1933 until the end of the war.  The amazing story of his survival will make you forget the 1000 pages.klemperer
  9. Art Spiegelman, The Complete Maus. I wrote a blog about this work a couple years ago. It is a graphic novel, and though that may seem like a strange genre for a Holocaust memoir, I believe it is required reading.maus
  10. Nikolaus Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.  If you are looking to find out about the horror, structure and ubiquity of the Nazi camps, this is the new definitive text.images
  11. Deborah Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial. Though Hannah Arendt’s classic Eichmann in Jerusalem is still important on a philosophical level, Lipstadt deals with the true history of the trial. She also illustrates a historically accepted truth that Arendt missed. Eichmann was not really banal, but he was evil.lipstadt
  12. Daniel Mendolsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Mendolsohn is a famous literary critic. In The Lost, he provides a touching, beautiful memoir of discovering his family’s Holocaust past.TheLost_4.30
  13. Rich Cohen, The Avengers: A Jewish War Story. The story of Jewish resistance to Nazi crimes is still one not often told.  Cohen’s narrative tells the story of his grandmother who fought alongside Abba Kovner, the most famous Jewish partisan during the war.cohen
  14. Claude Lanzmann, Shoah. Technically, this is not a book. But, it is a text. Shoah is Lanzmann’s 8 hour film masterpiece.  Filmed in the early 1980s, Lanzmann interviewed victims, perpetrators and collaborators.  Most of the interviews are emotionally wrenching. It may take you a couple days to get through.Editors-Pick-Shoah
  15. Thomas Kühne, Genocide and Belonging: Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945. This is the one specifically scholarly monograph I am adding to this list.  After reading and watching all of the above, tackle this one.kuhne

 

These books are accessible. They are readable. But they are not going to be ‘fun’. They can hit you in the gut, and leave you staggered.  That is what makes them all the more necessary.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

The other day I zoomed through Arthur Koestler’s classic prison memoir, Dialogue With Death.  Koestler was an important 1930s journalist/novelist/intellectual.  As with many of 9780226449616his generation, he was a leftist who flirted with Communism before becoming disenchanted by Stalin, Stalinism and the horrendous crimes perpetuated by the regime during that era.

But, Koestler was more than just a pie-in-the-sky intellectual with his head buried in dusty books.  He got his hands dirty experiencing the unstable political world of 1930s Europe. He witnessed first-hand many of the continent’s revolutions, putsches and civil wars.  Dialogue With Death is his 200 page account of Spanish Civil War battles, his coverage of Republican forces in that war, and his eventual capture by General Francisco Franco’s fascist troops.  After being captured, Koestler was thrown in jail, where he was kept in

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Koestler on his way to the North Pole, 1931

 

solitary confinement for the weeks leading up to his expected execution. In the hands of Franco’s fascists, death was the common punishment for ‘Reds’.  However, after a couple weeks his solitary slowly became less solitary. He began to clandestinely speak to other prisoners outside his cell; eventually, he was even given the opportunity to pick a book out of the prison ‘library’.

His description of getting his hands on his first book in over a month is a wonderfully evocative ode to the joys of reading:

‘I sat down on the bed, lit the cigarette and began to read….I read devoutly and fervently – and very slowly….I learned to read anew, with a long since forgotten concentration on every sentence, every adjective; I felt like someone who has been bed-ridden and who in learning to walk anew is acutely conscious of the play of his muscles. I fancy the Romans must have read in this fashion when books were written by hand on long parchment rolls; devoutly, sentence by sentence, only a few inches of the roll a day, so as to keep the rest for the morrow. When writers were obliged to use parchment rolls they knew how carefully people read them, and had confidence in their readers. Nowadays readers may have confidence in the writer, but writers have no confidence in the reader.’

Koestler was a bibliophile.  But, Koestler’s statement illustrates more than simply his love of books. Koestler’s words illustrate his discovery of the lost art of ‘intensive reading’.  Before his nightmarish prison experience, Koestler was most likely a typical modern reader; he read ‘extensively’. He read whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.  But in prison, the world he understood was destroyed.  Books became an impossible luxury. When he was finally able to settle into a book again, Koestler could not help but intensively read. By reading in this way, he made himself a pre-modern.   Literary scholar Geoffrey Turnovsky has pointed out that intensive reading was a skill practiced prior to the 15th-18th century printing boom. At that time, reading

‘was shaped by scarcity rather than abundance, and by the sway of powerful institutions – the Church, universities- that oriented reading in a conservative, stabilizing manner. To read intensively was to focus on a small set of works, rereading each one over and over, not….new information, or surprising amusements, but as part of a ritualistic re-affirmation of faith, understanding, or inclusion in a recognized community.

Though troubling in many ways (ie, not informational or original), intensive reading meant that the reader was supremely focused upon what he/she was studying.Friedrich_Herlin,_Reading_Saint_Peter_(1466)

In comparison, the modern world is marked by extensiveness.  We are more likely to be inundated under an avalanche of reading materials than to be facing a scarcity. Thus, reading as a skill is most valued by speed and efficiency. Just think of the millions spent by those who take speed-reading courses in hopes of plowing through a 500 page novel in 2 hours. In our education system, efficiency is as important as speed. When some of my fellow students in grad school complained about the reading load for one professor’s class, he informed us that we needed to learn what to read, and what to ignore in the books he assigned. A strange request, for a strange culture.

Of course, extensive reading and ubiquitous texts have led to a great many goods. The average human today has knowledge that the pre-printing intensive readers could only dream of.  I mean, who really wants to return to a world of medieval monks chanting and repeating memorized liturgies? Needless to say I am also not romanticizing solitary confinement in a right-wing secret prison with only a handful of books. Personally though, I sometimes think I don’t enjoy what I read enough; I find that I have the habit of thinking about my next book during the reading of my current book.  This is extensive reading absurdity.

In our world of extensive readings, Koestler’s rediscovery of books in a dark fascist prison cell is always good to keep in mind.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Every night before bed I read at least two books to my girls. I have been doing this since they were born.  As such, I have become a bit of connoisseur of children’s books.  Like every other area of literature, some books are good and some are 51Ny20bi-eLnot so good (I’m looking at you Rainbow Magic Series!). I have my favorites, and sometimes, but not always, these favorites are the same as my daughters.

As they have grown their tastes have changed and so have mine.  At this point of fatherhood, I think I can safely say the worst genre are the books intended for the smallest of babies. These books can be cute, but there are only so many times you can read ‘Goodnight Moon’ by Margaret Wise Brown, or ‘The Going to Bed Book’, by Sandra Boynton before you want to scream.  Luckily the toddler books are a bit better.  The ‘Olivia’ books by Ian Falconer, ‘Madeline’ by Ludwig Behelmans, and Jon Muth’s ‘Zen Shorts’ were some of our favorites.

Finally, in the last couple years we have started with chapter books.  We’ve completed some classics, such as Roald Dahl’s ‘James and the Giant Peach’, and E.B. White’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’. But most commonly these days we read more recently published series. Usually these series have female protagonists, such as ‘Judy Moody’ by Megan McDonald, ‘Nancy Clancy’ by Jane O’Connor and Annie Burrows’ ‘Ivy and Bean’. All three of these sets are pretty enjoyable, but I highly doubt the ‘Ivy and Bean’ or ‘Judy Moody’ books will have the same classic cache as the works of E.B. White. Most are just a bit too formulaic to live on beyond one generation of kids.

imagesStill, there is something incredible about children’s books nowadays. In one way at least, modern books have a leg up on the works of Dahl and White. Though perhaps not as strong in the area of story-telling, the newer books seem to be more pedagogical.  I have noticed that many books written during the last decade deliberately, though not obviously or annoyingly, attempt to assist children in growing a large vocabulary.

Let me give you just the latest example from our nightly readings:

During the last week, the girls and I have been reading a book called ‘Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible.’  Yes, it is not exactly Dickens or Hemingway, but it is a pretty fun read. Plowing through it, I have been awed by the number of college-level words sprinkled within an elementary school level book.  Here are just a couple of examples of words that forced my girls to ask, ‘what does that word mean’ as we were reading:

  • Ethereal.
  • Melancholy
  • Deportment
  • Praetor
  • Cower
  • Thwarted
  • Crone
  • Blighted
  • Snit
  • Haughtily
  • Dubiously

And this list is just from a quick glance through the book as I sit at my keyboard. I think it is realistic to say that there is a ‘vocab’ word each page or 618dqurp5PL._SX386_BO1,204,203,200_so.

So why the change from those old classics?  Well, I think authors of children’s books have an understanding of how important reading and hearing words are to developing the minds of children.  As I mentioned in a post a couple years ago, ‘it has been estimated that children who have parents that read books to them  will have heard 30 million more words in their lives by the time they start school than those that have non-reading parents.’  If this is the case, why not use as many words as possible?  Instead of ‘witch’, why not use ‘crone’; instead of ‘run-down’, why not use ‘blighted’; instead of ‘sad’, why not use ‘melancholy’?

At the very least, it keeps us parents on our word-definition toes.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

I love great books. I love great movies. But, isn’t it strange that great books rarely get made into great movies?  Take a look at The Guardian’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. Forget for one second the ridiculous  pro-British slant of the list. Just look at some of these titles: Don Quixote, Brothers Karamazov, Song of Solomon. Many of the books on the list have never been made into movies.  For those on the list that have been made into a movie, the film version is often highly forgettable. I mean, come on….William Shatner playing Alyosha Karamazov?  Sacrilege!

Perhaps just as strange is the fact that books that make great movies often aren’t considered to be very good books. Have a glance at AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American movies. These films are often not based upon any great book.  Yeah, I know The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird fit the bill as great movie/great book. But, such works are overshadowed by the vast number of forgettable books that have been made into classic films. Think Peter Bletchley’s Jaws or Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump. Call me crazy, but I just don’t see Groom being mentioned in the same breath as Tolstoy. And, if that is not enough, glance through the list of Oscar winner/nominees for  ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’.  Most of the books adapted for films are not just ordinary, they are paradoxically mediocre.

Why is so? The most straightforward answer seems to be that great novels can rarely be captured in a 2 hour film. Add another hour, and you still can’t make a viable retelling of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Add 5 extra hours, and you still won’t capture Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  This point brings us to problem number 2. You obviously need more time to retell a great story, and there is a limit to how long an audience will willfully sit in a darkened theater.

But, I believe this paradox may be now be solved. Movie lovers, and book lovers lament no more!

TV has taken over where movies dare not, or cannot, tread.  The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, etc. In the last decade or two, all of these shows are as good as, if not better than, what has appeared on the big screenWith bigger budgets, better actors, original writers, groundbreaking directors, and more artistic freedom, television (and online streaming services) now can weave a complex, multilayer story over 10, 20, 30, or 100 hours.  Make each episode about 45 minutes, allow people to binge watch, and voila: The next big commercial, critical and artistic success!

les-miserables

Oh Please.

The format would be perfect for adapting great books. An example: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. This novel is 1232 pages. It is exciting, romantic, historical, epic.  Now, I know many will say that this has already been made into a movie with the musical adaptation from a couple years ago.  But I am sorry; a two hour musical canNOT capture this story.  Andrew Lloyd Webber, via Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe does not do justice to Jean Valjean, Cosette or Marius.  Perhaps even more disappointing was Hollywood’s attempt 15 years ago to make a dramatic depiction of Hugo’s masterpiece. The film starring Liam Neeson, Claire Danes and Geoffrey Rush wasn’t horrible, but again, it wasn’t really Les Miserables. This winding tale will not be crammed into the parameters of a 180 minute movie.

But….

What about a Netflix season series? 10 episodes each season, 3 seasons, and 30 hours in total?  Computer graphics, violence, sex, depth of character, history? These are all things that could be put on the small screen, if some visionary would be so inclined. Can you imagine?

I can, and I love the idea.  Please, someone get on it.

While I wait, I guess I will just need to pick up Hugo’s novel again.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

When I can’t read books, I enjoy listening to them.   I am teaching this quarter at three different campuses, and hence, I am forced to be in the car quite a bit, driving the wonderful expressways of Chicago-land, and/or sitting in the seemingly endless, ubiquitous metro road work. Books on CD are my savior; they are my sanity. Instead of just sitting there swearing at other drivers, I can listen to a good book. 

During the last seven weeks of the second summer quarter, I have gone through a number of books on CD. I started the quarter listening to Dan Ariely’s Upside of Irrationality.  I must admit, I only got about half-way through when I just couldn’t take the recounting of behavioral experiments any longer.  I then moved on to Mary Roach’s Gulp: Adventures on themedium Alimentary Canal.  Roach’s popular science book is filled with fascinating, sometimes disturbing, sometimes hilarious anecdotes about saliva, mastication, the stomach, digestion and much more.  I didn’t finish this one either, since there is only so much heavy description I could take. I then moved on to Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.  Greenblatt is one of the world’s preeminent Shakespeare scholars, and this book illustrated why.  It is a biographical and social historical literary critique of the bard and his times. Strangely, I attempted to read this book a couple years ago, but just couldn’t get into it.  Listening to it was much more enjoyable.

The quarter is now winding down. For my last 4 weeks of travel, I decided to go for something a bit different.  Browsing RMU library’s selection of audiobooks, I came upon Markus Zusak’s 2006 best-selling novel The Book Thief, a fictional account of a young German girl struggling to survive during the Nazi dictatorship. I picked it up, and checked it out.

I was not ignorant of this novel. In fact, I actually own a paperback copy of the work, and I have thought many times about reading it. But, I have never gotten around to picking the book up. Honestly, I figured listening to the book may be the best thing to do, since there is no guarantee I would ever actually read the book. You see, novels are usually not at the top of my reading list. I’m a non-fiction reader first and foremost.  I would say for every 20 books I read, 1 is a work of fiction.  I read a hand-full of novels a year. Would Zusak’s work ever make the list? There were a couple reasons to be dubious.

71h2sjik5al-_sl1380_First, Zusak’s novel is not located with my other books. Most of my books are around me at all times.  They are in my living room, in my dining room and at my desk at work. I am constantly looking them over. Often I will base my reading decision upon what book catches my eye.  The Book Thief has never caught my eye. It is not in my living room; or my kitchen; or at my desk. It is in my 7 year old daughter’s room.

If you did not know already, The Book Thief is considered, and labelled, as a ‘Children’s book.’  It is ‘adolescent literature.’  And this is the second reason I probably would not be reading the book any time soon. I am not a kid (surprise!).  I honestly don’t really want to read a ‘children’s book’ on my free-time, as I read kid’s books all the time with my daughters.  I need something more serious; more grown up; more….adult.

 However, I had always heard that The Book Thief was wonderful. I had read reviews that it was a powerful, serious novel. The back cover of the book described a plot that did not sound very childish. So, I figured, if I am not ever going to read it, I might as well give it a listen.

A  reminder: Don’t judge a book by it’s cover….or it’s genre.

The verdict? 4 CDs through, 9 more to go (please no spoilers) and I am hooked.  It is a wonderful novel. Extremely well-written and psychologically complex. The book rings true, both historically and emotionally. I highly recommend it.

But, I am left with one question: Why is this considered a ‘children’s book’? 

The book is not light or pleasant.  Zusak doesn’t whitewash disturbing facts; he does a wonderful job portraying human behavior during the darkest of times.  It is readable, but the prose is by no means childish or simplistic. Why is this ‘for kids’?

 Is it simply because the main character is a 9 year old girl, and that we, as readers, are expected to enter her mental world? Do publishers believe that adults don’t remember what it is like to be a child, with all the fun and terror that goes along with it? Do publishers assume that children will only want to read about children, and adults only want to read about adults?  

Since I am not a publisher of books, I can’t say.  But, as a reader of books, I can say that The Book Thief should be on your, or your children’s, bookshelf.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I am writing this down here at the Turtle in order to avoid any excuses.  I have a goal for the new year, and I really want to accomplish it. This is something I have wanted to do since I finished up with graduate school about 10 years ago, but I just never found time.  No more rationalizations.  This year, I do it.

00505813_largeYes, yes, another New Year’s resolution post. I can feel cyberspace sigh with annoyance.  But wait!  Perhaps this will interest you?  I have never, ever made a New Year’s resolution before the one I am about to share.   This is a first.

So what do I resolve?  What will I accomplish?  Well….It may not seem exciting to a lot of people, but here it goes….drum roll please….

This year, I will keep an online, private journal recording each new book I read. Each entry will be a small synopsis of said book, and if called for, memorable quotes from the text.

*Crash, crash, crash* (Sound of cymbals)

Now, why am I resolving to do this?  Honestly, and this is not some pretentious claim, I read such a large volume of books at this point that I often forget what I have read. Don’t you think this pretty much defeats the $_35whole purpose of reading? I do. You know you have a problem when you go to the library, or bookstore, and see a book that interests you, and yet you wonder, “did I already read that?”   I was looking through some books the other day and I stumbled upon Francois Furet’s “Interpreting the French Revolution.” ‘Oh, that sounds excellent,’ I thought.  But, then, as I pondered, I could not, and I still cannot, remember if I ever read it.   How infuriating.

Oh, and there is one other reason to keep a ‘books read’ journal.  Though many people think I read the ever growing stack of books on my desk at RMU from cover to cover, I have a confession.  A good number of books piled up at work never get completely read.  Some of those mighty tomes only get a good skimming.  I will begin a book, find it boring, poorly written, or not about what I thought it was about, and put it down.  Nonetheless, even when that is the case, there are usually a couple pages of each book that has some value to me.  I hope fulfilling this journal resolution will help me keep track of those partially finished, or quickly dismissed books for my records.  I need to get this book obsession under control.

I know. Not the most world-shattering resolution, but there it is.  Welcome to the 2014 Flaneur’s Turtle.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other night, my wife and many of her Facebook ‘friends’ had a back and forth about a link she shared.  The bone of contention was one of those ubiquitous internet ‘lists’. You know the kind.  ‘The 50 best cat memes’, or the ’36 best Presidents’, or, in this case, the ’32 Books that will change your life’.

What is it about the internet’s insatiable love of lists?  In the realm of book lists alone, anonymous internet patrons proclaim what ‘books to read before you die’; or which ‘books you need to read before 30’; or simply, ‘The Greatest Books of All Time”.  At the very least, these lists spark discussion, as proven by the good-natured argument had by my wife and her social media buds about this particular ‘Buzzfeed’ biblio-litany.  Most of their discussion centered upon what books should be on the list, and what books didn’t deserve such praiseworthy recognition.  Each participant added his or her own ‘how could this book be missing from such a list’ selection.

I, myself, had another query after glancing at the list in question.  Why, oh why, do such lists focus so exclusively upon that most recent literary invention, appropriately termed the novel?  Where are the books that will change your life not in the novelistic form?  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good novel as much as the next bibliophile, but why do these lists ignore any mention of other types of books? If we are talking about books that ‘change your life’, or you ‘should read before you die’, shouldn’t there be at least the hint of philosophy?  Of Religion?  Perhaps, even the-republichistory?

Well, have no fear.  I will solve this list shortage with yet another list.   Here is just a sampling of works,  none novels, that should be read before you die; or that should be read before you 61Kvp0zgD6Lare 40; or that can change your life. Feel free to ignore my suggestions, and/or tell me what I missed.

  • The Republic by Plato – This may seem daunting, but most every argument crucial to Western philosophy gets it start right here.  Politics, morality, religion, social structure?  It’s all in there.
  • The Bible –  To understand our world, and the viewpoints of so many, read it from cover to cover.  Sure, there are moments in Deuteronomy and Leviticus that can get a bit long, but you can make it.federalist
  • The Works of Mencius – You may be saying to yourself ‘who’, not recognizing the name of one of the great Ancient Chinese philosophers. But, if you pick up his works, you will find an incredibly warm, and positive investigation of human nature.
  • 9781844678761_Communist-manifesto (1)Japanese Love Poems of the 10th Century – Again, this sounds arcane, but the poetry written during Japan’s Heien era is some of the most straightforwardly beautiful poetry around.  It is easy to fall in love with, pun notwithstanding.
  • The Federalist by Madison, Hamilton and Jay – Want to understand American politics? Here is where you need to start.
  • The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels – See what all the fuss is about.
  • download (2)Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin – Specifically, book lovers should check out his “Unpacking My Library”. With_the_Old_Breed_(Eugene_B._Sledge_book_-_cover_art)Cultural critics should delve into his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” for something a little less light.
  • With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge –   Sledge’s classic understated chronicle of his experiences during the World War 2 in the Pacific will make you question if there can be such a thing as a “Good War”.
  • foot2The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich – Still the standard introduction to art history.  Perfect for a college classroom, or for a relaxing read.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman – A groundbreaking work that combines the art of graphic novels with an Mausautobiographical memoir of the Holocaust.
  • 2943781Descartes’ Baby by Paul Bloom – Bloom is a Yale psychologist who studies infant behavior and development.  I think every page of this book had me shaking my head in amazement.  It opened my eyes to the incredible world of children’s minds.

So, there you have it.  A quickly constructed list of highly recommended non-novels.

Now, go argue about it on Facebook.  Or, Tumblr.  Or, wherever.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

As illustrated from my previous posts, I am a self-proclaimed, proud, outspoken bibliophile.  I love most everything about books.  Book-sales?  Love them.  Bookstores?  Love them.  Reading? Of course, love it. The great Carl Sagan spoke for me when he rhapsodized that,

A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for saganthousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.

Hear, hear Carl!  No doubt, books are magic. They have metaphysical superpowers. 

As I am sure my fellow bibliophiles will freely admit, there  is even more to our obsession with these ‘leaves’ and ‘pigmented squiggles’.  You see, as a lover of books, I yearn for the emotional, spiritual fulfillment that Sagan poeticizes.  But, just as important is the physical nature of books.  A book is a feast for the senses.  The look of the cover, paper and text; the smell of the pages, glue and ink; the feel of the paper; the sound of the turning pages, These sensations assist any true book fetish.  

In fact, Sagan’s metaphysical magic can only be created if the physical is just right. It is difficult to lose yourself in a book if the environmental surroundings are distracting.  It is similar when it comes to the physical components of the text. For me to be enraptured by the spiritual, the physical ‘look’ or ‘feel’ of the book generally must meet certain criteria.  These are,

  • Paperbacks please! Paperbacks are better than hardcover as they are lighter in the hand, and malleable.
  • No small text! I don’t want my eyes to hurt after one page.
  • Down with tiny margins! I want to feel like I am progressing in the book, and with tiny text and small margins, one page can take an hour to read.  I would rather read a format with larger text and margins making a book 1000 pages long, than a format that shrinks down such a book to 200 pages. I want to feel like I am progressing.
  • Pages should be rough to the touch, with a hefty thickness. I don’t want to see the next pages text bleeding through the current page.
  • I like a pretty face. Though not absolutely necessary, an intriguing cover is a nice bonus.

book_of_art_01These physical attributes make a magical book even more readable.  Of course, I can look past some of these criteria if it is absolutely necessary.  However, if a book that sounds interesting is missing many of these criteria, it will often fall down my “what to read next” list.

Physical appearance is central.  All of this may seem superficial to some, though I am certain we all share the same feelings regarding the objects of our desire.  It is nice to tell ourselves that we only think about what is inside, but the truth is we always are concerned about the physical…..

Please people!  Get your minds out of the gutter.  I am talking about books here. Come on!

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The first Friday in August is right up there with Thanksgiving or Christmas as my favorite day of the year.  What is the first Friday in August , you may ask?  At 6pm on that day, the Oak Park Public Library opens the doors of their Used Book Sale.

This year's OP booksale.

This year’s OP booksale.

“Screech”!!! goes the proverbial record.   I think I can read your minds, dear readers.  You are probably saying to yourself, ‘the opening of a book sale is one of your favorite days of the year?  What are you, some kind of a nerd?’  Yes, that’s right. I am a huge, certified nerd; an outspoken, proud bibliophile.

Now that we have my confession out of the way, let me explain why I love book sales, especially the one in my hometown of Oak Park.  This will prepare you in case you wish to join me next year for  the summer session biblio-extraganza.

  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times“: Book sales are simultaneously wonderful, and horrendous.  As you walk in, you get smacked by the stale, dusty air of thousands of old, used books.  This bouquet is often intensified by the heat of the room.  If the outside sear of the summer sun doesn’t warm up the air, then the crowding together of hundreds of bodies looking over the Cookbook section most definitely will.  These book sale-ophiles are a strange breed.  They can be rude, and pushy. Some act like it is ‘Black Friday’ at your local big-box retailer.  Others are simply zoned-in on their books, and don’t realize others are trying to browse.  You may ask someone to move without her hearing, and you need to squeeze by.  What often happens is one or two or twenty people will just start reading a book in the middle of a row, causing the natural flow of shopping to halt.  Therefore, if you are going to get all sweaty, carrying a huge load of books on your back, having your eyes water from ancient papyrus and mildew, you better find some good books  on the cheap.  The OP book sale is as busy as any other (often more so), but it is huge.  Over 100,000 books at extremely cheap prices. Two dollars for hardcovers, 1 dollar or 50 cents for paperbacks.  This year, I was able to pick up about 30 books for 38 dollars.  Jackpot!
  • Call me Ismael“: I often go into book sales with the hope of finding a ‘white whale’.  That book I have been searching for that I just can’t get myself to buy new for 25 dollars.  In other words, I want more out of a sale than just selection and quantity; book quality and rarity are a must.  I believe it is one of life’s great pleasures to spy a never-opened, mint condition book for 1 dollar.   For instance, just 9780374532505this year at the OP sale I stumbled upon a paperback copy of Michael Sandel’s bestseller “Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?”  As I grabbed it, I could instantly tell that the book was in great shape, and had likely never been read.  On Amazon.com, the book costs 15 dollars. At the OP book sale, 1 dollar.  Happiness is a warm philosophy book.
  • Happy bestsellers are all alike; every unhappy bestseller is unhappy in its own way…at a booksale“: One of the most humorous, yet annoying aspects of sales is the repetition of certain titles.  Some books have been ubiquitous sale standards for years, such as Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’, or James Clavell’s “Shogun’. Over the last two decades, I have seen a dozen of each of these 1970’s bestsellers at every sale I attend. ShogunNew ubiquitous titles show up each year.  A couple years ago, it was Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’ Diary”. Then, it was  James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces”.  This year, it was Elizabeth Mitchell’s “Eat, Pray, Love”.  That book was EVERYWHERE.  This is annoying because such books start to automatically catch your eyes, and hence, make you lose focus.  If you see your 42nd copy of “Eat, Pray, Love” on a table, it is challenging to take note of surrounding books. I am sure I have missed many titles because I couldn’t see past a book sale bestseller. Damn you, Leon Uris!

Let me end with my favorite, personal book sale anecdote.

In July 2007, I packed up my then 7 month old daughter and headed to the Newberry Library book sale.  Upon arrival, I put her in the ‘Baby Bjorn’, which kept her at chest height and allowed her to look outward at all the odd bibliophiles. Of course, I knew I had perhaps 45 minutes to get through the whole sale, since my little one would start to get bored relatively quickly. So I was moving fast, bending over consistently to see the many books laid out on the tables. Sometimes I would need to do this peeking over others, as I couldn’t wait around for each browser traffic-jam to clear.  One time, as I tried to peek over some fellow shoppers, my little angel produced a massive belch.  The dozens of people within 10 feet of me gave me a partly disgusted, partly quizzical glance.  They undoubtedly believed only a grown man could burp like that.  I wasn’t embarrassed; I had tears of laughter rolling down my face.  I figured all is fair in love and book sales.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty. 

The Lady Woolfs met at 826 Chicago, a tremendous non-profit that supports and promotes literacy in the Chicago area, where we all either worked or volunteered. 826CHI is a rarified space devoted to creative writing, community engagement, and general wackiness. We all fit in perfectly. I’m not exactly sure who started the book club. I could find out, of course, but all the best stories begin with mysterious origins.

At first, we were six: Corinne, Janet, Julie, Kait, Leah, and me. Ultimately, three of the Imageoriginal Woolfs moved away, but they are far from forgotten. Corrine was the first to become a long-distance Woolf when she, our proud Canadian, returned with her husband to their favorite state: Kansas. Corinne’s exit resulted in Kara’s addition to the Woolfs in 2011. We thought that was the most our club would ever change. But, as my 8th grade history teacher Mr. Johnson always said, “nothing’s constant except change,” and Julie and Kait were each offered remarkable professional opportunities in quick succession. In Spring 2012, Julie earned an important fellowship at the CDC and Kait was promoted to 826 National, in San Francisco. Our book club had room for more local members, so Jeni and Kendra, two more 826ers, were asked to join. Thus, there are nine Lady Woolfs, six local and three long-distance. Once a Woolf, always a Woolf. And though the departures are reluctant, the going-away parties are fabulous. None of us will forget Leah doing an actual spit-take as Kara grabbed and chugged each remaining glass of wine on the table as we said “goodbye” to Kait at Bin Wine Café. We all collapsed into giggles, barely summoning the strength to leave the restaurant.

We always discuss the book, for how long is flexible. Some books require discussion and scrutiny. Others seem strangely forgettable, still others downright dreadful. We analyze character, plot, style, symbolism, irony. We reveal remarkable insights. We disagree. We help each other see books in new ways. We all complain, perhaps me most of all, about the depiction of female characters. Women in literature—even in literature written by women—are so frequently oversimplified types: the earth mother, the unattainable beauty, the resilient misfit. What’s truly frustrating is that in every room where The Lady Woolfs sit, there are astonishingly complex, authentic, flawed, magnificent women. Why are women like us so uncommon on the page? Each one of us is nurturing and loving in marvelous ways. Each one of us possesses unique, captivating beauty. Each of us has failed to fit in. We are all that and more, and we search to find portrayals of women equally as vibrant, finding them only rarely—in Austen and Dundy and Wolitzer—cherishing them, like each other, all the more.

The Lady Woolfs’ meetings have grown over time, just like our relationships. A meeting can easily run four hours, as we devote ourselves to the extraordinary experience we’ve been gifted. Naturally, the stories shared aren’t limited to what we find in the books. It’s impossible to remember who said what, the words and wine flow so freely, so our own stories have intertwined with the novels and memoirs: french-fry-fueled hangovers, dissections of countless bad dates, two incidents involving fetish gear, exotic vacations, romantic engagements and preposterously hilarious (at the time) taglines, including the ridiculous “Tito, Tito, Tito, Relax.”  

ImageWhen I was convalescing last August, spending summer vacation in my darkened living room on the pulled-out couch, the Lady Woolfs hurried to my door with food and wine and gifts. Janet made me three eye patches, one green, one purple, and one red marked with a “T,” making me the envy of everyone in the eye clinic. We didn’t have a book to talk about because this was a “special session,” so we watched the Olympics on TV. The Lady Woolfs proceeded to get excessively drunk and exceedingly funny. Julie had us laughing so hard our faces ached, but we all agreed that was hysterical, too, so our laughter roared on and on.

When the next Lady Woolfs book club meeting approaches, the host sends out a reminder, and a volley of witty and wonderful emails builds until the appointed time. We descend upon the host’s house, adding wine, cheese, fruits, salads and chocolates to an already overflowing table. Yes, I am a member of quite possibly the world’s most extraordinary book club. No, I’m afraid we aren’t looking for new members.