In the past year, we have faced a global pandemic, economic challenges, virtual learning, and the “usual” challenges of life—starting college or moving toward graduation, working at new jobs, making new friends, and more. I tend to face such matters—perhaps everything—by reading. I read serious books and junk just as I watch serious film, documentary, news, and to be honest, escape. (Lately, I binge watched “Bridgerton,” for example.)
I thought, as we reach out to one another right now, between fall and spring, I would share a few books that have been part of my thinking and ask you to share something that helps you in these times. (See how to at the end of this note.)
- “The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial,” by Robert Bellah, was published a long while ago, and reflects on the ways the United States has had aspirational ideals and deep-seated brokenness from the get-go. It looks to the ways we have been nativist—and inclusive, rooted in slavery and hoping for equality, populist, and elitist, and much more. Nearly 50 years old (or is it more?), I read the book when I was in college and return to it regularly to remember that America—both country and symbol—has been a mixed blessing. It matters to me in these unprecedented times.
- Sarah Schulman’s work “Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair” is a much more recent book written by someone who was in college at the University of Chicago when I was a graduate student. The book is imperfect, but it reminds me not to demonize those with whom I profoundly disagree.
- Mark Juergensmeyer first wrote “Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence” after the first World Trade Center bombing in the early 1990s. The first half is chapters in which Juergensmeyer speaks with—indeed thinks with—violent extremists ranging across the world religions. His goal: to recognize the humanity even of those that one finds profoundly and deeply horrifying.
- In the 1980s and 1990s, I co-taught with a chemist a course on what we came to call AIDS/HIV. An author who helped me think about that pandemic was Susan Sontag in her works “Illness as Metaphor” and “AIDS and Its Metaphors.” She has helped me think about how we make sense of the pandemic shaping our lives.
- One of my favorite ways to “escape” is to read murder mysteries. The list is huge, often including chefs or abstruse detectives who cook. I will spare you that list and list as a fifth book a cookbook I happen to truly love, Madhur Jaffrey’s “From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail.” The book cover is a particularly shocking shade of pink. And, my own copy is truly a mess from re-reading and sloppy cooking.
- And one extra: a thriller set in New York City, which is by Alyssa Cole and is entitled “When No One is Watching: A Thriller.” Trust me. It will keep you reading.
So: these books help or helped me. They distract or offer insight or challenge. They are not all the words to which I return—but they are on my mind right now. They are part of my toolbox to think with—part of my intellectual community acquired across many years—and to think against.
Recently a thinker visiting the Academy suggested Afro-futurism as a place to go to think more fulsomely. I was not expecting that. Turns out we share a love for Octavia Butler, but I had never heard of several works she recommended. I have them by my desk now.
Like that speaker, I think you have suggestions for me—and for us all. I would love to hear what reading and thinking you recommend. What works for you in these unprecedented times? Send me a note if you want (subject header: recommended reading).
Or, let me know what you are binge watching. These are indeed unprecedented times.