Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education invited twelve professors and scholars to reflect on non-fiction books published in the last thirty years that most “profoundly altered the way they regard themselves, their work, the world.” The list was fascinating for its breadth in subject-matter (e.g. doping in cycling, anarchism, workplace discrimination), range in discipline (history, sociology, philosophy, to name a few) and wide assortment of impacts on the reader (personal, professional, political, spiritual).
The list got us thinking about books that have made a difference in our work at Books@Work, and in our thinking more generally. Books for which we are profoundly grateful this Thanksgiving. Books with which we may agree or disagree. Books that feature characters with whom we may identify or whom we may revile. Books that we liked and books that we didn’t. Books that were easy reads and ones that were more difficult. But all books that got us thinking in new ways.
Here are three from my own reading:
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – This 2002 epic novel (and Pulitzer Prize winner) traces the Stephanides’ family history through the eyes of Callie, a teenager coming of age in suburban Detroit in the 1970s. Many have commented on Eugenides’ meticulous research and understanding of hermaphrodites. I’ve no doubt that this is the case. But the aspect of this book that was most astounding to me was the few pages of the novel devoted to a description of the 1967 Detroit riots, told by Callie. Though I’d read scholarly accounts of the riots and their significance for the future of the City of Detroit and the industrial economy, Eugenides’ writing made me feel that I was learning about the complicated and tragic unfolding of the riots for the first time. He paints a picture in which no one has good choices and in which the characters are very much human – something that historians forget at their peril.
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier – Though most likely found in the Young Adult section of the library, this book continues to haunt me two decades after I first read it as a teenager. The story of Jerry Renault’s refusal to sell chocolates for a fundraiser at an all boys’ Catholic school raises powerful and important questions about community, alienation and how a simple and elegant stance by an individual can derail an entire social order. I had read accounts of resistance fighters during World War II and civil rights activists who put their lives on the line to register to vote in the segregated South. But however moved I was by these extraordinary actions, they felt very removed from my own reality. It was Cormier’s glimpse into the ordinary that made me feel that I, too, could be a part of a social movement for meaningful change, that I, too, could disturb the universe – and that the consequences for doing so might be dire.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – When I first read Nabokov’s 1955 masterpiece I remember being confused upon learning that the Russian-born Nabokov had penned the novel in English. How could someone whose first language wasn’t English write so elegantly? The prose in the book is beautiful, but it is more than that; it is convincing. So much so that when an event occurs that seems utterly preposterous in the retelling – the convenient death of a character at precisely the right moment, for example – the writing makes us feel that the event is utterly believable. So much so that we almost begin to feel sympathetic to the child molester, literature professor and narrator, Humbert Humbert. The book made me feel the power that writing could impart – for both good and ill.
So much of Books@Work is the experience of discussing works of literature with a professor and colleagues or community members. But it is also the experience of encountering books that change us and cause us to think in new and profound ways. Books for which all of us at Books@Work are deeply thankful this Thanksgiving.
What books are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?
Image: Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943, oil on canvas, Norman Rockwell Museum (Stockbridge, Massachusetts), [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons