Profs’ Picks

Joan Steitz
Sterling Professor of Molecular Biology & Biophysics; Investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute

For me, reading Rosalind Franklin, the Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox, has been both inspiring and depressing. The publication of this book was exquisitely timed to coincide with gala celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA. For years, the biological community has known that Rosalind Franklin collected X-ray data important to James Watson and Francis Crick in formulating their revolutionary deductions. But she died in 1958, too early even to be considered a potential recipient of the 1962 Nobel Prize, shared by Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s official supervisor while she worked on DNA.

My own conception of Rosalind Franklin as a person and scientist was initially shaped by Jim Watson’s depiction of her as a blue-stockinged, pig-headed perfectionist in his best-selling autobiographical account of the discovery of the DNA structure, The Double Helix. I was a graduate student in Watson’s lab at the time that he wrote The Double Helix, and was privileged to read early (and even blunter) versions of the manuscript. After I left the Watson lab, I did postdoctoral work at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, and there interacted with three scientists who were students and co-workers of Franklin at the time of her death. Even though I was aware of important publications she had co-authored with Aaron Klug, John Finch and Ken Holmes, somehow the subject of Rosalind Franklin never came up and I remained largely ignorant of the other side of the story.

What Brenda Maddox has captured in her superb biography of Franklin is the spirit of a young woman so engrossed by her fascination with science that she was able to achieve extraordinary things in a world dominated by men. I could not help but be inspired by her determination to overcome obstacles and was comforted to learn that she was quite a different woman from the picture painted by Watson. The book leaves open the question of whether Franklin ever truly appreciated that she had been robbed of data that would make a scientific revolution. I think we will never know. She simply died too young. That is the profound tragedy, made depressingly poignant by Maddox’s beautiful telling of the story of Franklin’s life.

Norma Thompson
Associate Director of the Whitney Humanities Center and Senior Lecturer in the Humanities

The book I recently finished and liked very much is a collection of stories, Charles Baxter’s Believers. One of his characters in this work says: “Funny how books put themselves into your hands when they wanted you to read them.” It is interesting to try to figure our why you’re reading what you’re reading at any given time. By and large, my current supply is far from the grim reading I am doing during the day (on the topic of Eichmann in Jerusalem), and pretty far, too, from the self-reflexive and difficult Modernist authors I often teach. These are short stories, or novellas at most; the writing is simple and clear and searing (my favorite line in the novella Believers is: “`Oh, no,’ he said.”), and makes me wonder how the author knows so much about human interactions and relationships. In “The Cures for Love,” the protagonist is devastated and broken after the man with whom she is still infatuated has left her and disappeared. “Her clocks ached. Time had congealed.” The story is about how she reconstructs herself, narrating her actions to herself in a process that is painful and very funny. Alice Munro wrote in a blurb that Baxter reminded her of how broad and deep and shining a story can be, so now I’m reading Munro: Selected Stories and Open Secrets.

Seyla Benhabib
Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy

Alan Furst’s novels are becoming classics of a genre—the historical spy novel. Joining Graham Greene and John le Carre, Furst is an evocative and tantalizing writer, combining historical knowledge with unforgettable characters. A Russian emigre writer, living in Paris, on his way to Istanbul to meet his childhood sweetheart who is slowly dying in an old “yali” (villa) on the Bosphorus, encounters the wife of a minor French diplomat and gets tangled in a plot to sabotage the sale of oil from Rumania to Nazi Germany in Blood of Victory. In the Kingdom of Shadows, two Hungarian aristocrats living in Paris get ensnared in efforts to help the Ruthenian independence movement. Where is Ruthenia? Situated at the hills of the Carpathian mountains, Ruthenia is surrounded by Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Rumania, and the USSR. If you want to understand why the nation-state never made sense in Eastern Europe, and enjoy descriptions of great French food and even love-making, read this novel.

Maria Rosa Menocal
R. Selden Rose Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, Director of the Whitney Humanities Center

I’m reading the marvelous book of memoirs written by my colleague and friend (and fellow Cuban) Carlos Eire called Waiting for Snow in Havana, which tells the story of his childhood while still in Cuba and then the trauma of his being shipped to the U.S. without his parents—and never to see his father again. But what makes it an exceptional book that everyone ought to read isn’t so much the story, although that is dramatic enough, but rather the language of the author, as exquisite as that of the finest novels of our time. It’s so achingly beautiful that you can only read a few pages at a time.

Adam Haslett Yale Law School

Most recently, I finished W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, highly recommended to me by several friends. The book consists of four narratives of mid-century emigration from war-torn Europe to either England or America. Not a novel in a conventional sense—the text is interspersed with black and white photographs—it places these stories side by side and lets the reader draw connections. The book has a satisfyingly meditative quality created by the rhythmic prose and the patient observations of the narrator. While the content is bleak, at times suicidal, you feel as though you are peering through the mere facts of these people’s lives into a kind of spiritual state (though Sebald never approaches such things directly). You’re left with a memory of atmosphere more than event. If you’re interested in the possibilities of form in the contemporary novel, it’s definitely worth reading.

Another recent novel that I think is worthwhile is Pankaj Mishra’s The Romantics. It’s a latter-day Sentimental Education set in Benares, India. While its scope is narrow, the book is very well observed, and convincingly captures the usually inchoate dilemmas and struggles of a young intellectual’s life without descending into pretension.

William Segraves
Yale College Dean’s Advisor on Science Education, Research Scientist in Molecular, Cellular & Development Biology

The last book I read for pleasure was Early Love and Brook Trout, by James Prosek ’97. James’s paintings are stunningly beautiful, vibrantly colorful, some remarkably realistic and others distinctly impressionist. But his book reminds me of the time I saw James sketch a trout with just a few pencil strokes. What Prosek captures with just a few strokes or a few words brings the whole rest of the scene to life. I can see the colors of the trout, the autumn leaves, sense the smells and sounds of the river and the woods, the anticipation and the disappointments of adolescence. It’s all there, in just a little book.

Anne Dunlop
Assistant Professor of History of Art

For several weeks I have been reading short stories by Jorge Luis Borges. I started reading them in the hope of reviving my moribund Spanish, thinking that Borges’s writing might be suited to my uncertain comprehension. At the moment I’m reading and re-reading El Aleph and El libro de arena, each time with new pleasure. I’m also re-reading The Art of Memory by Frances Yates, who seems to trace the real-world history of Borges’s impossible libraries and invented heresies. Her book looks at a particular type of memory training, in which people created elaborate imaginary spaces, and then placed suitably mnemonic objects within them. To retrieve the information to be remembered, one then imagined moving through these spaces, finding the objects along the way. In the Renaissance, there were attempts to build such spaces, as permanent repositories of the memory of all human knowledge. I hope next to read My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. It combines two of my great interests—art and crime.

Sidney Altman
Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology and Chemistry

My night-time reading habits vary with time and effort spent on my other activities. However, right now I am in a Scottish mystery novel phase, in deference to my daughter and new granddaughter, who are currently living in Scotland. I recently read a novel by Alexander McCall Smith called The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The writing style is so beautifully limpid it almost gives one physical pleasure to read the book. These stories about a seemingly easy-going life are simple and couched in concise, expressive language. I look forward to more of McCall Smith’s books.

I have also read some of Ian Rankin’s novels, most lately Resurrected Men, about a tough-minded, whisky-sodden but good-hearted detective. These novels are clever in their complexity but they are somewhat overwritten in order to take into account all of the characters Rankin inserts into his books.

From time to time, I do revert to reading a copy of Elizabeth I’s transcripts and copies of speeches, letters and prayers, the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf, Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer, and Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier, all of which lie by my bedside.

Diane Charney
Tutor in the Bass Writing Program, Lecturer in French

“So many books! So little time!” I once saw that on a sweatshirt, and think I know just how the author felt. Here I am, on my second millennium, having devoted much of the first to reading books in my field of French literature. But one of the great pleasures of being at Yale is the chance finally to fill in some gaps, and to do so under the guidance of some truly brilliant colleagues. A few high points: Vladimir Alexandrov’s affectionately termed “Tolstoyevski” class, a not-to-be-missed opportunity to read
four masterpieces of Russian Literature in translation. There is NO better way to make it through a long New Haven winter—except maybe in the years when he gives his Nabokov class! Kafka is also a recent
passion, and to discover him as illuminated by Shoshana Felman is a great privilege. The reading list from Robert Stepto’s “Autobiography in America” is full of amazing surprises such as Mary Karr’s bestseller, The Liar’s Club and Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate, a riveting mix of intellectual autobiography imbedded in the “family secret” of the Armenian Massacre, the template for the Holocausts to come. And to read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida makes it impossible to look at a photograph (or at anything else) the same way. Any work from Peter Brooks’ DeVane reading list merits rereading as frequently as possible: to read Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse, or anything by Balzac at different stages of one’s life offers a whole new experience.

Then there are all the classics I somehow managed to miss, and which I continue to target. When I mentioned to a colleague that I’d love to organize a panel of experts on their experience of encountering a classic for the first time late in life, she said it was a great idea, but that it would be hard to find anyone willing to admit to, say, meeting Pip for the first time at age 55. But that last treat came to me as a result of a book group that I only reluctantly agreed to join, mostly to try to be sociable. There, I get to read things I’d probably never have picked up in a million years, like Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees, by Roger Fouts, which makes an eloquent case for how close we are to our primate ancestors. Through my association with the book group, I was asked to give the “Books Sandwiched In” talk on the recent bestseller, Spies, by Michael Frayn, which didn’t sound like my type of book at all. Wrong again! Who wouldn’t relate to getting back in touch with the power of childhood imagination, the universal human need to feel important, and Big Questions like “What are we really afraid of?” “What does it mean to grow up?” I guess I’ll never be too “grown up” for Dickens or for a sweatshirt that says “So many books! So little time!”