What’s on the nightstand of Yale’s Professors…

Over spring break, the YRB staff asked faculty members to tell us what they were reading “for fun.” Here are their picks…

Sidney Altman
Professor of MCDB and Chemistry

I’m reading Jason Betzinez’s I Fought with Geronimo, an autobiography of a very long-lived Apache who was a young man in the tribe when Geronimo was still fighting the U.S. cavalry and the Mexican army. Betzinez describes the rigors of daily life and the restless, fighting travels of the Apache until they ultimately surrendered. He was chosen for school at Carlisle and went on to the life of “a good citizen.” A fascinating read for those fans of the Old West.
Christy Anderson
Associate Professor of the History of Art

Right now I’m reading Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. In beautiful prose and fascinating detail, Pollan looks at the life of four plants, ‘nature’s alchemists’: the potato, apple, tulip, and marijuana. He explores the intersection of emotion and nature, with some surprising results. Pollan suggests that we do not domesticate plants; they exert their own imperial aspirations and desire for evolution. As I wait in these final weeks for the birth of my first child, this book makes the powerful case all too clear that we do not control nature; nature controls us.
Leslie Brisman
Professor of English

It is a family joke that my wife and I, the professional students of literature, are the poorest read. Even this spring break, when I may get past students’ essay drafts, what’s next in my pile are some offprints from colleagues. There’s no way I’ll get to “leisure reading.” But I’m happy to share the fine stories I have recently read that are set in New Haven. One is by R. Clifton Spargo, “A History of Minor Trespasses,” published in Glimmer Train 41 (Winter 2002). The other is a collection of linked stories by Alice Mattison, Men Giving Money, Women Yelling. The tears provoked by the former and the laughter by the latter both make New Haven—and experience generally—easier to take.
Richard Brodhead
Dean of Yale College, Professor of English

Over break, “for fun,” I read a novel by a Russian dissident just published in this country, Summer at Baden-Baden, by Leonid Tsypkin—a Dostoyevskian fantasy about Dostoyevsky’s gambling and second marriage. Also The Bible Unearthed, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, an account of what recent archaeological finds suggest about the origins of the Hebrew Bible. I’m also rereading Dickens’s Little Dorrit, which I haven’t read since I was an undergraduate and which is even better than I’d remembered. Also, because I’m reviewing it (so not purely for fun), Hershel Parker’s monumental biography of Melville.
Peter Brooks
Professor of Comparative Literature and French

I recently read Ian McEwan’s new novel, Atonement, with much pleasure: he is one of the most artful novelists currently at work, and this novel is far more ambitious in scope and subject than his earlier ones. Still, I feel there is always something manipulative in McEwan’s novels, in his control of the predictable reversals, in the way he plays on readers’ responses. The artful comes too close to the artificial.
Mark Burde
Assistant Professor of French

I’ve just read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera. Amusing, but I don’t recall any specifics. No, seriously: trenchant political and philosophical observations made in a half-dozen novelistic vignettes that tend toward the autobiographical and are hence of particular interest to anyone wishing for insights into (relatively) recent Central European history.
George Fayen
Lecturer in English

“For fun” can cover a multitude of spins, sometimes even off-beat, so I’d have to opt for Justus Lawler’s Celestial Pantomime: Poetic Structures of Transcendence, which finds, in the work and play of poetry, in all its local figures and rhythms, a parable of power. Wild, unsettling, and most immediate, this book leaves us listening differently to all the poems and poets we thought we knew.
Paul Freedman
Professor of History

I recently read a wonderful book about the Oxford literary circle: The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter. It’s a discussion of the group that met in the late 1930s and 1940s whose best-known members were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They shared an interest in fantasy and Christianity and a concern with the disenchantment of the world. I’m also reading War in Heaven, a strange kind of Christian apologetic detective story by another member of this group, Charles Williams. I’m not sure I’m going to finish it.
Paul Fry
Professor of English, master of Ezra Stiles

Recently I’ve read two very good novels. One, which everyone else has read too, is Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, arguably the best work of fiction published in a long time—so adept, versatile, and broadly observant that it’s almost impossible to fault. The other is a satire on literary ambition, Martin Amis’s Information, which is more narrow-gauged and quite deliberately less even-handed in its imagination of character and of the world, yet just as intelligent and just as virtuoso a piece of writing.
Glenda Gilmore
Professor of History and American Studies

After reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers last summer, I searched out all of her Harriet Vane/Lord Peter Whimsey mysteries. Since then I’ve read over a dozen. Vane is smart, pretty (but not too), and fiercely independent. Lord Peter is a brilliant, slightly funny-looking man who respects Vane for her liberation. Sayers is a wonderful writer, the mysteries are complicated, and the solutions satisfying. I can’t wait to forget the plots so that I can read them all over again.
Karsten Harries
Professor of Philosophy

These days, what I read “for fun” is almost always related in some fashion, or gets related, to what I am now working on. For a birthday present I was given Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. The book introduces us in the most engaging fashion to a modern Kunstkammer, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California. Like the Kunstkammern of the 17th century, Mr. Wilson’s cabinet invites us think about the boundary that both joins and separates art and science. It is a boundary that very much demands serious thought. Mr. Weschler’s book will echo in work I am just beginning.
Donald Kagan
Professor of Classics and History

I am reading Burying Caesar, The Churchill-Chamberlain Rivalry, by Graham Stewart. It is an interesting account of the political backgrounds of the two men and the competition between them, which helps illuminate the political and policy issues of the day and their two most important advocates.
Daniel Kevles
Professor of History

I’ve been reading Anthony J. Rudel’s Imagining Don Giovanni, a kind of docunovel about Mozart’s struggles while he was writing the opera. It’s a diverting book, full of tales about the advice he got from Casanova, his relationship with Constanza, and the lives and loves of his circle. Rudel, the son of the celebrated conductor Julius Rudel, knows a great deal about the world of music and brings it engagingly to life on the page.
Anthony Kronman
Dean of the Yale Law School

I’ve just finished reading Adam Gopnik’s wonderful collection of essays, Paris to the Moon. Most (all?) of the essays first appeared in the New Yorker, where Gopnik is a staff writer. They are brilliantly insightful about American and French culture, and several of them are wildly funny. The pleasure of reading the book was enhanced for me by the fact that I read it in Paris, at a hotel right across the street from a famous café (the Café di Flore) that is the subject of one of Gopnik’s chapters.
Ivan Marcus
Professor of History and Religious Studies

I just finished Myla Goldberg’s first novel, Bee Season. It shows remarkable familiarity with the complex letter mysticism and ecstasy-inducing divine Name permutation exercises by the medieval Jewish magus and self-proclaimed messiah, Abraham Abulafia, while all along interweaving a compelling psychological family narrative about real people as well as real letters.
Kevin Repp
Associate Professor of History

I’m reading Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant. Olly olly oxen-free through the wily wilds of interwar modernity. A splendid sampler of the surrealists’ magical arts, laced with a potable dose of Hegel. Aragon is to Benjamin as Stendahl is to Nietzsche. More twinkling, adventurous, less sure-footed along the way. And I’m reading Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, a page-turner giving a splendid feel for the excitement in theoretical physics these days. There is a plasticity to Greene’s descriptions that lets even the most unmathematical mind wrap itself around concepts like relativity, quantum foam, and super-strings in ways I never imagined possible. I don’t want the book to end.
Jonathan Spence
Professor of History

I am in the middle of rereading Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (last read 40-plus years ago) and am relishing its extreme outrageousness, its wonderful spoof of academics and students alike, and all the wise and strange things it says about love. Also, Beerbohm’s musings on history as a craft are delicious.
Norma Thompson
Associate Director, Whitney Humanities Center

Lately my idea of fun has centered on the courtroom: Law and Order reruns, Court TV, The Practice—that kind of thing. The last book I read for fun, unconnected to my classes, was On Trial: Lessons from a Lifetime in the Courtroom, by Henry G. Miller. Any book that begins with Mark Twain—”The efficiency of our jury system is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read”—and ends with the advice to “keep fit, be ethical, take vacations” must be somehow worth reading.
Frank Turner
Professor of History

I’m reading The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa: a remarkable political novel that delves convincingly into the mind, character, and corruption of political authoritarianism, in this case the rule of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.
Susan Weiner
Associate Professor of French

I’ve lately read Alan Lightman’s The Diagnosis. Was this “fun”? In any case, chilling, brilliant, an utterly original meditation on a soul lost in corporate America.