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Stanford Humanities Center fellows make time for summer reading

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Photo Credit: 
Photo Collage by Tanu Wakefield

The weather is warmer, the daylight hours are longer,  and another academic year at the Stanford Humanities Center has come to a close.  After months of concentrated work on their book projects, outgoing fellows are fleshing out their summer reading lists. Scott Bukatman, professor of Art and Art History at Stanford, is planning to dive into “a whole mess of comics and crime novels,” which makes sense since he recently published the book Hellboy’s World: Comics and Monsters on the Margins (2016).  Other fellows’ reading picks reflect both research interests and complete divergences from their fields. From thrillers to memoirs to Russian classics, check out the intriguing titles and compelling reasons for why these books have made it on Stanford Humanities Center fellows' reading lists. 

The Blackhouse (2013) by Peter May 
The award-winning book is the first in the Lewis Trilogy, a mystery series set on the Isle of Lewis near Scotland. A murder on the island brings Edinburgh detective and native islander Fin Macleod back to his hometown to investigate and relive his tortured past. This book is Stanford Humanities Center’s Director Caroline Winterer’s top reading pick for the summer. As it turns out, Winterer is not only an expert on early American history but also an aficionado of bloody murder mysteries set in the outer Hebrides of Scotland.

The Japanese Lover (2015) by Isabel Allende 
High up on ethnomusicologist Kay Kaufman Shelemay’s list is this epic novel. Spanning multiple generations, Allende tells the story of a lifelong, secret love affair of a couple from very different backgrounds separated by war and race.  

The Noise of Time (2016) by Julian Barnes
Shelemay is also planning on reading the highly touted, fictionalized retelling of the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, a Soviet pianist and a prominent composer of the 20th century. 

The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth (2012) by Stephen Alford
Renaissance Studies scholar Ruth Ahnert will be re-reading The Watchers, which details the network of spies, informers, and agent provocateurs the Tudor government used to intercept intelligence on threats to the crown. It dovetails with her research this year at the center conducting network analysis of the Tudor government archive of 132,000 letters. “The topic is highly relevant to my own research, but it is also an artful example of how to turn historic archives into compelling stories for a popular audience,” she said.  

Hotel World (2001) by Ali Smith 
Ahnert plans to take this one with her camping this summer. The Scottish novel was shortlisted both for the Booker Prize and the Orange Fiction Prize in 2001. Written from the perspective of a recently deceased young woman, the book has been praised for being inventive, engaging, and conceptually challenging.

Brothers Karamazov (1879) by Fyodor Dostoevsky 
Slavic Languages and Literature scholar Jason Cieply will be re-reading Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov with high-school students as part of Stanford Professor Gabriella Safran's course, Poetic Justice: Exploring Dostoevsky's Russia at Stanford Summer Humanities Institute. Safran was also a fellow at the center this past year. Dostoevsky's last novel is Cieply’s favorite among the "large, loose, baggy monsters of nineteenth-century Russian literature. Brothers Karamazov is a classic read for long summer nights. 

The Peregrine (1967) by J.A. Baker
Stanford archaeologist John Rick doesn’t see the summer as reading time. “it's all fieldwork and being really tired; if I try to read, I go to sleep.” Nevertheless, he has set aside Stanford’s recent Another Look book club selection, The Peregrine by J. A. Baker. “This book, highly revered in some circles, gets deeply into understanding the life of a pair of peregrine falcons,” Rick said, “I confess to a real deep drive to understanding these amazing birds, after meeting up with a pair on the beach near our little Bodega Bay shack.” 

Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (2016) by James T. Kloppenberg
This book ranks first on American historian Claire Arcenas’ summer reading list. With research and teaching interests in the intellectual, political, and cultural history of the United States, she has been eagerly awaiting Kloppenberg’s magnum opus for years along with many other colleagues. “Elegant and compelling in all the ways historians have come to expect from Kloppenberg, it’s a big book—in size and scope—so a perfect summer read!” she said. 

The Slow Regard of Silent Things (2014) by Patrick Rothfuss
Arcenas also plans to reread this companion novella to The Kingkiller Chronicle series. Rothfuss’s writing has been described as part mystery, part fantasy. “If you haven’t yet read Name of the Wind (the first in the series), start there, and know that the reading only gets better! Rothfuss is a captivating and masterful storyteller and this tale of Auri is an absolute delight,” she said. 

The Ring (1964) by Richard Wagner, John Updike, and Warren Chappell
This illustrated children’s version of Wagner’s opera plot, The Ring, dates back to 1964. But it remains pertinent and compelling to an opera expert like musicologist Lisa Marie Burnett. Burnett spent her year at the center completing her dissertation, an examination of representative musical works from Wagner’s Germany to Stalin’s USSR to Mao’s China, and finally Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. Burnett quipped about The Ring, “Sure, your three-year-old might be fully potty trained, but mine can give a two-sentence summary of Wagner’s Ring cycle, thanks to this handy illustrated children’s book by John Updike. Yes, that’s John Updike.”

Choose Your Own Autobiography (2014) by Neil Patrick Harris
This is not your typical celebrity memoir, and Burnett is very much looking forward to it. “With three graduate degrees in hand, I feel I can be out and proud about spending my summer reading this on my phone while the kids are asleep, possibly with a happy beverage of choice in hand,” she said. 

World Order (2014) by Henry Kissinger
This New York Times Bestseller that examines America’s international relations from an historical perspective has piqued Burnett’s curiosity and is also on her summer reading list. “Now, the former Secretary of State and I disagree on a number of fundamental policy matters. But let’s give the devil his due, the man’s a towering intellectual figure in world affairs,” she said. 

Scuffy the Tugboat and his Adventures Downriver (1946) by Gertrude Crampton and Tibor Gergely
This little Golden Book gem depicts the adventurous aspirations of a tugboat who realizes he’s much happier in the bathtub. Burnett enjoys all that can be read into the simple tale. “Do the laws of physics from the Big Bang onward create conditions under which free will is merely an illusion? Gertrude Crampton’s classic tale of the eponymous watercraft’s search for existential meaning addresses these problems in an allegory that blends the theology of Thomas Aquinas with a dash of American-style Calvinist predestination and Jeffersonian Manifest Destiny,” she said. 

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances (2015) by Neil Gaiman
This is Gaiman’s third short story collection and includes the horror, science fiction and fairy tales, fantasy, and poetry for which the British writer has become well-known. It made it onto Burnett’s list because “in the Neil Gaiman-verse, trigger warnings are good, and homeless people speak with a posh British accent while possessing magical powers that link them to some weird twilight dimension. It’s thus clearly superior to our universe in all salient respects. Yes, please.”  

Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (2016) by Shadi Hamid
This latest book by political scientist Shadi Hamid traces the history of Islam and its influence up to the present day.  “What if you could have a democratic regime with religion woven into the fabric of its political and judicial existence? Would that help solve some of the problems plaguing much of today’s Muslim world? This is the provocative thesis put forth by political scientist Shadi Hamid in his latest book. I don’t know if he’s right, or if so, if Islam is exceptional in this regard as his title claims, but recent history suggests some fresh thinking on this issue is warranted,” Burnett said.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) by Frans de Waal
A biologist and primatologist takes a deep exploration of animal intelligence challenging human assumptions about the animal world. This book intrigues Burnett who said, “Animals are a lot smarter than is generally suspected, and at least a few of them probably have complex thought and something analogous to language. In fact, the coming decades might well see a revolution in thinking about animal welfare and animal rights.”

Laboratory Life (1979) by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar 
The Pasteurization of France (1988) by Bruno Latour
Music theory scholar Jennifer Iverson will be delving into these two classical texts from one of her favorite intellectuals. Iverson spent her year at the center working on her book called Electronic Inspirations: The WDR Studio and Musical Thought at Mid-Century about the impact of the West German Radio electronic music studio on the post-war European musical avant-garde in the critical decades of the 1950s and 1960s. "I’m contemplating the electronic music studio as a laboratory, and I love Latour’s analysis of laboratory culture and the production of scientific knowledge," she said of her summer reading selection. 

Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw in Postwar Europe (2014) by Joy Calico
Iverson will be delving into this book because she says Calico provides great insight into postwar era Europe, “a cultural stew that also hosts the electronic music studios” and those are the very studios Iverson examines in her book.  

Housekeeping (1980) by Marilynne Robinson
Iverson plans to dig into Marilynne Robinson’s modern classic about two sisters being raised by their eccentric aunt in the small western town of Fingerbone. Robinson delivered the Stanford Humanities Center’s 2015 Presidential Lecture in Arts and the Humanities in October.