The Ultimate Reading List
What do mystery novels, Dostoyevsky, The Hunger Games and the Bible have in common? They’re all must-reads among St. Edward’s University faculty members. We polled a few professors on their favorite books in and out of the classroom. We noticed a few trends (it’s all work and very little play during the semester, and everybody seems to love a good mystery) and discovered some surprises we would never have guessed.
Compiled by Lauren Liebowitz
In psychology, we tend to share research findings that originated in journal articles or sources other than books.
White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession and the Psychology of Mental Control by Daniel M. Wegner. Dan is a friend of mine. He taught at Trinity University in San Antonio before moving to Harvard. When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, he gave an informal talk on his ideas about thought suppression, so I was among the first to hear about this exciting topic that eventually captivated the field. This book, in particular, has a lot of popular appeal. It describes a catchy set of experiments, but it also summarizes groundbreaking work that offers a new explanation for an age-old problem: Why is it sometimes so difficult to control what we think?
The Years of Lyndon Johnson (all four volumes) by Robert Caro
Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone by Johnny Ramone
Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, and Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–1963 by Taylor Branch. The first one is just a great read of how willing our society is to attempt to regulate the personal behavior of the poor, especially those who seek social services and economic support. The second is a Pulitzer Prize–winning book about the early years of the civil rights movement. Both are classics I always recommend.
I love mysteries and detective stories, and my favorite series are the Adam Dalgliesh mysteries by P.D. James and the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbø, a Swedish author. My husband teases me because I always figure out who the bad guy is when I watch a movie or read a book, and I’m always right! I like not knowing, so the more obstacles a writer can put in my way, the happier I am.
The Snowman by Jo Nesbø
Second Treatise of Government by John Locke. This is a key set of arguments and philosophical reflections regarding the origins of and limits on the moral authority of government. It is central for understanding a whole host of discussions in the history of ethics and political philosophy in the West.
The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant and Elements of the Philosophy of Right by G.W.F. Hegel. It is impossible to understand the history of the Western world, its moral discussions and social political manifestations, without Kant and Hegel. This is Kant’s core work. It is, in some ways, analogous to the work of Copernicus or Einstein. It fundamentally changed the way we understand, appreciate and approach the world. Hegel’s impact on politics through his illegitimate offspring, especially Karl Marx, and on the intellectual movements captured under the umbrella term “post modernism” cannot be underestimated.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, In Fury Born by David Weber, The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R. Tolkien and Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is bed-time reading with my eight-year-old son. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is good for long airplane rides. Peter J. Leithart’s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom, which is an interesting bit of history.
The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. This book tracks the history of violence in the world. His thesis is that we are in the least violent period in human history. I find that goes against what a lot of people think, especially because the media and politicians claim we should be afraid, and things are getting worse. Pinker makes very good arguments and backs it up with research. For example, I’d been aware that the crime rate has been declining for the last 20 or so years, but Pinker goes back three or four thousand years. He cites the Enlightenment, the Rights of Man and good government as main reasons for this change. As we become a more organized and well-governed people, the number of wars throughout the world and everyday homicide go down.
How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns by Audrey Cronin, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Reset: Iran, Turkey and American’s Future by Stephen Kinzer, and The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph Stiglitz. The title of Half the Sky comes from a Chinese saying that women occupy half the sky in heaven. The authors, Kristof and WuDunn, are a married couple who traveled all over the world to research this book. They argue that a successful society really needs to include the skills and talents of women. If you don’t, you’re only using half of what you have.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
World War Z by Max Brooks
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. It’s an amazing graphic memoir by a brilliant writer and artist. It talks about all these serious subjects: the suicide of her father, how much she loves books, her family, coming out. It’s a brilliant, beautiful narrative. I like teaching graphic novels in general, and that’s a great one to teach. Even students who say they don’t like to read are drawn to them. It seems that it will be fast, easy reading, but students say they go very slowly through each page, noticing all this rich detail in the pictures that they might not have gotten in the words. It hits a different audience. Even people who aren’t strong readers get sucked into it.
It’s hard to choose, but I’d say The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. This book mirrors the life of its author, a woman in England who was born female but always identified with men. It’s one of the first books that tried to talk about a lesbian identity from a positive point of view. It was a very controversial banned book at the time. Being banned makes a book popular! Now people think it’s old-fashioned and don’t pay much attention to it. I look at it as a historical document. Today, we think about identity and sexuality differently. People think identity is natural, but if you historicize these ideas, the differences can be really fascinating.
Young-adult fiction of all sorts: The Hunger Games is one of my favorites. I must’ve read it four times. And I love Madeleine L’Engle, especially A Ring of Endless Light.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie or Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Julia Kristeva Reader edited by Toril Moi, Uses of Literature by Rita Felski, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition by Kelly Oliver, The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning by James Zull, and anything ever written by Bell Hooks. She is a prolific writer.
Quest: The Life and Death of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross by Derek Gill and Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences by Nancy Evans Bush. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on popular literature about near-death experiences. Bush’s work is about these experiences when they are distressing instead of uplifting. She grounds them in ancient spiritual traditions so that people who have these experiences don’t assume they’re crazy or automatically going to hell. And Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is an inspiration to me. She brought hospice to the United States and is one of the great humanitarians of the 20th century.
I’m interested in these books about death and near-death experiences for personal reasons. A close family friend of ours had a near-death experience in the 1970s, before much was written about them. I also experienced the loss of a sibling at a very young age, which brought me face to face with death and mortality. My academic field has personal value but also social, psychological and spiritual value to me.
The Event of Literature by Terry Eagleton. I am also taking the Bible Challenge and reading the Bible all the way through in a year. That amounts to three Old Testament chapters, one Psalm and one New Testament chapter daily.
Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. A small book, more a meditation, it’s Barthes’ late-life reflections on photography. I usually read it with photography students, which is rather ironic as the photographer is the one player who does not greatly interest Barthes. Rather, he looks to the viewer/receiver (or his term “spectator”) for the experience of the photograph. It is one of those gems that rewards richly and differently with each reading.
How many volumes can this answer fill? I teach across the entire discipline of art history in addition to the history of photography, the field in which I currently do most of my own research.
To get a sense of art today, I’d encourage exploring current journals, e.g., Art in America or Art Forum, in hard copy, so they enjoy all the advertisements that are an important part of this “visual literature” lost online. I also love reading exhibition catalogues; that’s where some of the most current scholarship appears today in art history. I would add that within that current scholarship, some of the most exciting material relates to art conservation, where many great finds are being made today.
Mysteries, especially Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. I also enjoy Ngaio Marsh, Donna Leon and Laura Lippman.
Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World and Ross King’s new book Leonardo and the Last Supper. Much of the rest of my current reading is the endless, somewhat Sisyphean, effort to keep up with periodicals.