Sheltering in Place With a Few Good Books
Personal Recommendations by W&L Faculty
In early April, we asked the W&L faculty, “If you were marooned on a desert island, what book would help you pass the time?” We explained that we wanted to share their responses with W&L alumni and parents, who, like most Americans, are sheltering in place during this time of pandemic. What followed was a massive outpouring of titles along with personal testimony as to the merits of these selections. We are pleased now to share these with you in the order in which they have been received. It has been widely observed that good teaching — for which Washington and Lee is well known — is, above all, a sharing of enthusiasms. These recommendations and the broad range of subjects they comprise — most often beyond the faculty’s particular discipline — reveal that our faculty well represent W&L’s mission to inspire a lifelong love of learning. — Rob Fure Director of Lifelong Learning
Michelle Brock, History: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My other suggestions would be James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006). It is, in many respects, a modern retelling of James Hog’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), but most of all it is a funny and thought-provoking story about the intersections between faith, psychology, and modern culture. Robertson is probably the greatest living Scottish author, and his works provide a wonderful window into the past and present of Scotland. I’ve also been turning, as I often do, to Mary Oliver’s poetry. For anyone interested, Devotions is a great place to start — a collection of some of her very best work.
Brandon Hasbrouck, Law: The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead, and The Water Dancer, by T-Nehisi Coates. Both are beautifully written, and the stories are compelling.
Stephanie Sandberg, Theater: Several recommendations: I highly recommend IQ84, by Haruki Murakami, because of how the resilient characters in this masterpiece handle their existential isolation one moment
at a time and chart a careful course to escape. The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay. We all need this right now. There’s an excellent ON BEING podcast with Krista Tippett interviewing him. Also, the audio book is wonderful to listen to while you go on a nature walk. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky — about the isolation of the French during WWII’s occupation of Paris. Further recommendations: The Moment of Lift, by Melinda Gates; Call It Grace, by Serene Jones; and A Philosophy of Boredom and A Philosophy of Loneliness, by Lars Svendsen.
a balanced mindset during in these strange days. To savor it, I recommend treating yourself to 1-2 essays (chapters) per day.
Erich Uffelman, Chemistry: Three novels by Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (best novel EVER!), Northanger Abbey (simply charming), and Persuasion (really satisfying). For someone who wants to be kept busy longer, Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens. For a great tale of chivalry in depression era Los Angeles, Raymond Chandler’s Red Wind. It begins with one of the great opening paragraphs of all time.
Terry Vosbein, Music: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Persig and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
Karla Murdock, Psychology: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. This book freshened my perspective of the fragility of our lives and lifestyles, a preview of sorts for our current in vivo life lesson. It is written so beautifully that it spoiled me for all other books for an uncomfortably long time. Also, The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay. This book has been my guide for cultivating
Kevin Finch, Journalism: Three recommendations: Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom by the Sea. Somewhat in the tradition of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (sans camper and dog), Theroux traveled the entire coastline of Great Britain, around Cornwall, along the Welsh coast and eventually Scotland and back to England. It was when the British were fighting the Falklands War against Argentina in 1982. Theroux paints a picture of the constants of life in centuries old towns and hamlets against a whispered backdrop of uneasy conversation about war
among his fellow travelers. My second recommendation is Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia, about the miserably hot summer of 1787 when 55 delegates eventually drafted a constitution for the new country. It draws from official records and correspondence but reads like a novel, full of fiery and quirky characters. A bit more recent is Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour. There was so much inside information about this prelude to U.S. involvement in World War II I didn’t know. I kept saying to myself, “I had no idea.” She’s a great writer and a dogged researcher.
Towles. A genteel, sophisticated, wonderfully engaging, beautifully written tale about a Russian aristocrat sentenced to house arrest for the balance of his life in the Hotel Metropol in 1930’s Moscow. While the Metropol offers a wider array of interior landscapes and diversions than most (all?) of our homes, the book models well the work of engaging deeply with the relationships and surroundings in which one finds oneself immersed, voluntarily or not. At more than 450 pages, A Gentleman in Moscow is substantial enough to really sink one’s teeth into. It is a terrific Audible listen as well.
Ken Lambert, Computer Science: Antonio Reyes, Romance Languages: Stoner, by John Williams. It’s a very well written novel portraying the unglamorous life of a professor in the Midwest. It may not be uplifting enough for the current times. But The New Yorker describes it as “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.”
Jemma Levy, Theater: Semicolon, by Cecilia Watson. This one is way more fun than a book about a punctuation mark should ever be. The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai. This is a book about a different pandemic, beautifully written, and in the end, full of hope. Circe, by Madeline Miller — One of my favorite contemporary wordsmiths, her writing is lyrical in the true sense of the word, and she weaves stories from ancient myths gorgeously. The Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson — A liberal arts education wrapped in a mystery wrapped in one of the strangest true stories I’ve ever heard.
Beth Belmont, Law: A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor
Apropos of Nothing, by Woody Allen, a funny and brilliantly written account of Allen’s 84 years, including his early family life in New York, how he got started in comedy and film, and his approach to those art forms. It includes an in-depth rebuttal of the charges of child sexual abuse made by his son, daughter, and former partner. Published by Amazon Kindle after Allen’s son, Ronan Farrow, pressured another publisher to cancel publication. Next, A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel, by Amor Towles, an engrossing tale of what it might have been like to live the good life as a “former Person” in the first four decades of the Soviet Union. An aristocrat survives as a waiter in Moscow’s finest hotel, where he observes and deals with the challenges of a new society.
2020, as opposed to Tudor England, when even the wealthiest and most powerful faced the constant threat of horrible violence, illness, and death.
Matt Gildner, History: John Womack, Jr., Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. This is one of the best historical treatments of the Mexican Revolutions, focusing on Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary peasant leader from Morelos. What is particularly remarkable about this book is that the author weaves disparate historical sources into the analysis so well that it reads almost like a novel. A second recommendation: Jaime Saenz’s Felipe Delgado. This is the masterwork of celebrated 20th century Bolivian poet, writer, and outcast.
Brian Alexander, Politics: Favorites that I would reread if I had time are: Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, by Robert Caro (2002), about LBJ’s rise in the Senate, the nature of power, and so much more about American history. Triste Tropiques (1955) by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. It’s part travelogue, part memoir, and part philosophical meditation on who we are as humans based on how we view ourselves and how we view others. For folks quarantined with kids, now is a great time to read aloud The Little House on the Prairie series, which is about, among other things, a family that makes it together largely in isolation from others.
Simon Levy, Computer Science:
Gavin Fox, Business Administration:
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy, because 1) her writing makes other novelists look like hacks; 2) she’ll make you appreciate how fortunate you are to be living in the U.S. in the year
Purple Cow, by Seth Godin — crazy marketing stuff that stands out from the crowd, and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini — how sales people try to
manipulate you, with great classic examples like the Hare Krishnas.
Taylor Walle, English: In my opinion, there’s nothing like a mystery to redirect your fears and distract you from everyday life. Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is perfect for this moment: it’s creepy and compelling, with memorable characters, and it’s over 700 pages long, so it will keep you busy for a while. If you finish that and you’re hungry for more delicious Victorian mysteries, you might try The Moonstone (also Collins) or Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. And if I may put in a small plug: I think independent bookstores are really struggling right now, so please encourage people to order from their local bookstores. If that’s not convenient, there’s a terrific new alternative to Amazon called “Bookshop.” They donate a portion of their sales to independent bookstores!
Shane Lynch, Music: The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien. I read it every year anyway, and the layers of information are immense, especially if you have all the appendices.
Marc Junkunc, Business Administration: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This fairly recent book is fascinating and is rapidly becoming a must-read classic. It also has direct relevance to the unbelievable situation we all find ourselves in today. A “black swan” is a highly improbable event that is unpredictable, yet carries a massive impact. The intellectually curious will love this book and open up new ways of thinking about our world.
Doug Rendleman, Law: A few years ago, my English professor told the class, “When you don’t have anything else to read, read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon.”
Melina Bell, Philosophy: Trevor Noah, Born A Crime. He reads for the audiobook and it’s fantastic. And very funny. The following three are not funny, but very eye-opening: Matthew Desmond, Evicted; Jason De Leon, The Land of Open Graves; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow.
Matthew Naven, Economics: While this isn’t my favorite book (the first couple hundred pages are too much of a slog for it to be that), Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace, has been the book that’s changed my life the most. It taught me more about addiction (it can be to “harmless” things like tennis, not just drugs), depression, and the human condition than any other book I’ve read, and that doesn’t even touch on the wildly ambiguous plot that involves a fringe group of wheelchair-bound Québécois terrorists taking place in years named after corporate sponsors (such as the Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster). The 1000+ pages would do a good job of keeping me occupied for a while as well. Another personal favorite would be Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. I didn’t get it a bit the first time I had to read it in high school (it was the first and only time I decided that Spark Notes were good enough for my term paper), but upon rereading it as an adult I finally picked up on its absurdist sense of humor. It’s a good reminder that the world is a fairly ridiculous place, especially in
crazy times such as war or pandemic, and that sometimes there’s not much more you can do than laugh at its ridiculousness.
J. D. King, Law: The best two books that I have read recently are Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers and Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe. It’s a fascinating and readable account of the Troubles in Northern Ireland that focuses on a specific and notorious abduction and murder but broadens the lens to tell the history of the political conflict in Northern Ireland.
Bob Strong, Politics: I recommend the bestseller that came out at the end of 2019, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe. It’s the story of Jean McConville, the mother of ten, who was killed by the IRA for suspected collaboration with the British. While he unravels the mystery of what happened to Jean, Keefe provides a compelling and accessible account of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. He makes it easy to understand why the fighting went on so long and why the resentments it left behind are still dangerous. It’s a story without many heroes and plenty of painful evidence that political communities are fragile and hard to put back together once they are broken. Another recommendation is No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal. If you want to understand what went wrong in America’s long intervention in Afghanistan, read Gopal’s account of a
Taliban commander, a U.S. supported warlord and a village housewife caught in the middle of endless fighting. Gopal writes with deep knowledge of life in Afghanistan and the ability to turn complicated stories into compelling prose. There may not be a better book on the American war in Afghanistan.
Jack Bovay, Accounting: The Internal Revenue Code is a must read. I recommend reading it straight through and not skipping sections. I find that it flows better that way. Next, Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose; April 1865, by Jay Winik; Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing; and all biographies of John Colter. We can achieve all of our goals and survive all adversity if we choose to. Luck helps. Maybe even something more powerful.
Jill Fraley, Law: Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver. This novel is one of Kingsolver’s earlier works and is less well known but contains some of the themes (environmentalism, complex family relationships, etc.) we all know and enjoy in her later works. If you’ve enjoyed her more popular books and missed this one, it’s a lovely treat.
Nandini Bhalla, Journalism: The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, by Robin Sharma. It has a little spiritual touch and definitely brings a sense of calmness. It could be boring for people who love adventure. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. It is a great book. It is a gripping story of an Afghan boy. I think this is a good read in these times when we are cribbing for not getting out, whereas there are some
people in some country who do not have freedom or food in their plates.
Nadia Ayoub, Biology: The Xenogenesis Trilogy, by Octavia Butler. If you like science fiction, character development, care about social justice, or just want a damn compelling story, read anything by Octavia Butler. Her books make you think about everyday real-life issues but simultaneously let you escape reality, which is what I need at times like this.
Howard Pickett, Ethics and Poverty Studies: Deborah Miranda, Bad Indians; Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, Poor Economics (Nobel Prize winners last year), very readable despite the title.
Paul Gregory, Philosophy:
When we began classes using Zoom, my Japanese LIT class had been assigned Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World. The young protagonist, faced with the news that he will soon die, is approached by the devil in an Aloha shirt. They strike a deal that the young man, who has not led a very remarkable life, can gain another day of life, if one thing disappears from the world. The first to go are cell phones and films. The students enjoyed the short novel and had much to discuss. When asked what object would they sacrifice to gain an extra day of life, many heartily replied, “Zoom!”
Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne. 2017. Oxford University Press. Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook. Down Girl treats misogyny in the tradition of analytic Feminist philosophy. The book won the Association of American Publishers 2019 PROSE Award in Philosophy, as well as the overall 2019 PROSE Award for Excellence in Humanities. Also recommended, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. 2016. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook. Other Minds is a 2016 bestseller by Peter Godfrey-Smith on the evolution and nature of consciousness. It compares the situation in cephalopods, especially the octopus and the cuttlefish, with that in mammals and birds.
Molly Michelmore, History:
Barton Myers, History:
Here are four non-fiction, history or history-adjacent books: Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger; Alexis Coe, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington; Sarah Milov: The Cigarette: A Political History; and Adam Domby: False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory.
I think you and the alumni would enjoy these in particular: Andrew Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East (Random House, 2016) (Long listed for the National Book Award); Eric Foner, The Second Founding (Norton, 2019); and Earl Hess, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth (Univ. of Kansas Press, 2008).
Janet Ikeda, Japanese:
Dayo Abah, Journalism: These are some of my favorites: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe; Lila, by Marylynne Robinson; Death and the King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka; Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Adichie.
Rich Bidlack, History: I’ve enjoyed very much reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads (Bloomsbury, 2015). In the West, we often think of the center of civilization as extending over time from the Middle East to Europe to the Americas. In fact, for millennia the axis on which the globe spun was the territory between the Middle East and Pacific Ocean. Frankopan, who is Professor of Global History at Oxford University, covers a broad sweep of world history in vivid and clear prose. It’s a fascinating read.
Indian slave who appeared often in the correspondence. Ghosh is also a great novelist, and all his books are worth reading; finally, Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man, a powerful fictional account of a Parsee (Zoroastrian) girl coming-of-age during the bloody partition of British India, written by a Parsee author! The book was made into a superb 1998 film by Deepa Mehta called “Earth.”
Bill Connelly, Politics: Naturally, I recommend Alexis de Tocqueville’s ever-relevant classic Democracy in America, a book written in the 1830s though it speaks clearly to us today. Each year my students are astounded by how seemingly prescient and relevant Tocqueville is. Tocqueville touches on almost every topic under the sun in discoursing on American politics and culture. Plus, this classic is a very pleasant read.
Tim Lubin, Religion: For India-related readings, I can recommend William Dalrymple’s White Mughals or Nine Lives, a fascinating historical tour of romantic liaisons and marriages between British officers and native Indians in colonial India. Rich in detail drawn from private letters, diaries, and even coded dispatches, it offers a nuanced view of the fraught relations between Indians and their “white” overlords. Next, Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, a deft interweaving of historical fact and ethnographic reflection. Ghosh, trained at Cambridge in social anthropology, recalls his fieldwork among Egyptian farmers who were perplexed by the curious Hindu who appeared in their midst. Meanwhile, Ghosh uses fortuitously preserved letters of a 12th-century Jewish trader from Egypt who lived in India and acquired an
Bill Patch, History: Those with a perverse sense of humor would enjoy Norman Ohler, Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich (Mariner Books, 2018), which deals with the development and incredibly successful marketing of the world’s first ultrapowerful synthetic opioids, the first methamphetamines (injected, for example, into high-priced chocolates to appeal to housewives), new forms and uses for cocaine, and a wide variety of doping agents later made famous by the East German Olympics program. It turns out that, after the war, there was as much international competition to grab Nazi pharmacologists as rocket scientists
Haley Sigler, Education: Two recommendations: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They
Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley. Ripley weaves research and narrative through three stories of American teenagers studying abroad in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Through their journeys, she examines different approaches to schooling and raises questions about what is important in public education. Next, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch. A former Assistant Secretary of Education, Ravich discusses ways to preserve and improve American public schools. She examines some of today’s most controversial issues such as accountability, privatization, standardized testing, and charter schools.
Yanhong Zhu, Chinese: I would recommend CIxin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, translated by Ken Liu. It is a Chinese science fiction novel and the first Asian novel to win a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.
Paul Cabe, Biology: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, by Carl Zimmer. I’ve enjoyed reading this with students in my classes. A great and detailed consideration of heredity in humans, from the Hapsburgs (and before) to modern genomic testing and modification with CRISPR.
David Bello, History: What I would tell others on the island to read: Capital in the Twentyfirst Century, by Thomas Piketty; Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Fireside Chats; The Great Depression & the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction, by Eric Rauchway; Endgame, by Derrick Jensen. What I would read
myself (again & again) on the island: Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein; Dune (Books 1-4), by Frank Herbert; Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges. Warning: the first group is depressing but more true; the second group is pure genius but less true. Tolkein himself observed, “I much prefer history — true or feigned.”
Edward Adams, English: My personal list begins with a book I’ve long owned but never done more than dip into. I’ve now started reading it cover to cover: Richard Sewall’s The Life of Emily Dickinson. It won the National Book Award, and is very impressive, but also very long. To me it seemed a good occasion to spend lots of time with someone who herself spent many years secluded in her house. I think any long (not short) Dickinson biography would be a good choice. There are several besides Sewall’s. Following this theme, The Cat in the Hat — supplemented by Louis Menand’s essay on it in the New Yorker about 20 years ago (you can find it by using the magazine’s search box). He begins by wondering where the mother was going (and why her object was so pressing) that she was willing to leave her two little kids at home alone all day. It’s fun to think of all the bad reasons for wanting to leave a house when one shouldn’t — and Menand does some brilliant wondering.
Marcos Perez, Sociology:
recommend Saint Young Men, by Hikaru Nakamura. On “leave” from their celestial duties, Jesus and Buddha are roommates in modern day Tokyo. What more do I need to say? The vignettes of their daily life will make you smile, especially if you have ever had fish-out-of-water experiences while discovering new places with a friend! By the way, this book is a manga (comic book) so it’s not difficult to read. I also recommend The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. This book needs no words — which is good because it has no words. It’s a visually beautiful story about the immigrant experience. You can spend countless hours looking at the images.
I’d take with me Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman. It’s like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but in the 20th century.
Jeff Barnett, Romance Languages:
uncertainty and the impact highly improbable events. Taleb argues that the most important things that happen in our world, from major developments that alter history to the chance events that shape our individual lives, tend to be the most unexpected.
Alison Bell, Anthropology: My desert-island book — Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (full stop). My current read, released yesterday — Lulu Miller’s Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Love, Loss, and the Hidden Order of Life. Kirkus Reviews calls it “A quirky wonder of a book.”
Steve Desjardins, Chemistry: Despite my temptations to suggest books on water purification and hallucinogenic herbs, my recommendation is Chaos: Making a New Science, by James Gleick. Gleick was a NY Times correspondent back in the 80’s when he wrote this book on the rise of chaos theory. His presentation of the science and the emergence of the associated ideas is marvelously clear and entertaining. After reading this book, Mike Pleva and I created our Disorder and Chaos course in 1989.
Seth Cantey, Politics:
Lynny Chin, Sociology:
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, is a spectacular novel about a man living under house arrest in a hotel in Moscow. The dialogue is some of the best I’ve seen in fiction. The book’s ending is magnificent. Second, The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This non-fiction work is about
I’ve enjoyed many books this year, especially Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites, by Mitchell Stevens (2007). It offers an examination of how admissions is conducted at elite liberal arts schools. For fun on the “desert island” — now our homes — I would
For a desert island, I recommend Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Also, one overlooked book by a Cuban-American: Uva De Aragón’s The Memory of Silence (2002).
Wythe Whiting, Cognitive and Behavioral Science: My pick would be The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. This definitely falls into the category of a beach read, but it also plays themes of being stuck in repetitive cycles against the need to instigate profound change. There is also a twinge of the supernatural and an ending full of suspense.
Doug Cumming, Journalism: Here’s my contribution: The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges. It’s from 2010, but spot on for the age of (and explanation of ) Trump. Hedges writes with the
insights of a Neil Postman, a Daniel Boorstin and a theologian (a PK, he started in seminary), but also reports as the journalist he is. Each chapter’s “illusion” — of literacy, love, war, etc. — is reported from the ground up, with the skill and dark view Hedges honed covering war for nearly 30 years, mostly for the New York Times. Second recommendation: The End of October, a brand-new novel by New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright based on his years of research into how likely and unprepared America was/ is for a pandemic. It’s just out, so I haven’t read it yet, but from reviews and interviews with him, it sounds like another work showing his knack for seeing what others didn’t see. Wright’s book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 told dramatically how the intelligence community just missed stopping that attack. Thirdly, any novel by Anne Tyler. Currently, I’m reading one of her early ones, If Morning Ever Comes.
Alecia Swasy, Journalism: I’ll offer two titles from the “S” part of the shelf, written by authors with last names beginning with the letter “R.” Save me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, by Ruth Reichl. A reflection on 10 years at Gourmet magazine. And Saving Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few, Robert Reich’s highly-readably dissection of the U.S. politicaleconomic system.
Deborah Miranda, English: 1) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This book came out in March 2013 and is still on the NYT bestseller list. Richard Powers, author of The Overstory, says “I give daily thanks for Robin Wall Kimmerer for
being a font of endless knowledge, both mental and spiritual.” This is the book my 300 Lit students just finished and say is saving their sanity right now. 2) The Overstory, by Richard Powers. A novel about trees and the people who love them in a time of devastation. I have no idea how to summarize this one, other than to say that it creates its own sense of deep tree-time and is perfect for quarantine reading. 3) The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich. A fictionalized story of her grandfather’s fight against the termination of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe of North Dakota (timely, as we watch the same thing happening to the Mashpee Wampanoag people at this very moment). Beautiful writing. This one I’m listening to as an audio book and YES so should you. Erdrich’s reading of character’s voices is amazing. 4) Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton. In a world where people have turned into zombies, a pet crow narrates how animals save each other — and maybe save the entire world. The crow, named S.T. — short for something not complimentary — turns out to have unexpected leadership qualities despite his potty-mouth. A Seattle-based story, so a personal favorite. 4) I also recommend Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin, for its worldbuilding of a kind of utopia sometime in the future in the Napa Valley area of California, with its multi-genre bent for fiction, essays, poetry, drawings, and even (if you go online) music. Told in multiple voices and deeply based on California Indigenous epistemologies, with Le Guin’s beautiful emphasis on relationships, reciprocity, passion, and getting inside of time. I think I’ll re-read her Earthsea Cycle, too — after I recover from the post-Spring Term collapse that I’m planning.
Diego Millan, English and Africana Studies: For any speculative fiction fans, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy is excellent. The first in the trilogy (The Fifth Season) was awarded the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2016. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (or The Bluest Eye, or Sula, or A Mercy, or The Source of Self-Regard (essays), or Home or…).
Fiona Watson, Biology: I loved: Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Of course, a book about isolation/quarantine due to a viral infection is Jose Saramago’s Blindness.
Sarah Howowitz, History: Here would be my suggestions for history buffs: 1) Timothy Tackett, The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution, a beautifully written account of the French Revolution by the foremost American historian of the Revolution. It’s both the most up-todate scholarship and a compelling read. I teach it in my French Revolution seminar and students love it. 2) Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World is pretty much the same for the Haitian Revolution. I couldn’t put it down. Recent books that I’ve loved: 1) Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing. It’s not light read, but it’s gorgeous and haunting. 2) Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is a genre-bending memoir about domestic abuse that combines memoir with a lot of archival research and pulls of a literary feat that is amazing. Every chapter is its own genre, and it’s written in the second person. I couldn’t put it down. 3) Jordy Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox is also genre bending. It’s partly the fictional tale of an early 18th century thief and partly a satire of contemporary academic life. It’s also
about gender, race, and urban life (and quarantine during an epidemic). I’m halfway through it and find it mind bending.
dig records in an Egyptian tomb, activating prep-school connections to establish spies code-named Vulture and Chickadee, and organizing parachute drops.”
Kevin Beanland, Mathematics: If it were after July 7th, I would, of course, recommend Florence Adler Swims Forever, the debut novel from my favorite author, Rachel Beanland! Otherwise, I’d bring Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. The novel takes places in a mansion that has been taken over by a rag-tag group of terrorists in an undisclosed South American country. The story is surreal, a bit scary, and somewhat comical, which pretty much describes our current situation. The second book is Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. This book is mind bending, imaginative, and irresistible. All told, I probably read this book twice because I was constantly going back to reread passages. I guess being on a desert island would give me time to do that over and over again.
Michael Laughy, Classics: For those interested in spies, war, and archaeologists with guns, I suggest the following: Susan Heuck Allen’s Classical Spies: American Archaeologists with the OSS in World War II Greece, University of Michigan Press (2013). From the press: “Classical Spies is the first insiders’ account of the operations of the American intelligence service in World War II Greece. Initiated by archaeologists in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, the network drew on scholars’ personal contacts and knowledge of languages and terrain. While modern readers might think Indiana Jones is just a fantasy character, Classical Spies discloses events where even Indy would feel at home: burying Athenian
Jon Erickson, Economics: In a similar vein, I’ll add to the list: Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston. The novel combines history, archaeology, tales of swashbuckling and dubious treasure hunters, and old-fashioned adventure within the setting of a treacherous jungle. The discoveries that the expedition team makes hold much significance for the current times.
Joan Shaughnessy, Law: I am more of an inhaler than a reader so the very thought of having but a single book on a desert island is terrible. What would I read the next day? So, I offer three rich series of novels from wonderful times and places. In no particular order. 1) Dorothy Dunnett, The House of Niccolo and The Lymond Chronicles series, in which Nicholas de Fleury and later Francis Crawford range all over the Renaissance world, from Scotland and Italy and far beyond to Iceland, Persia, Muscovy, and Africa and countless places in between. 2) Patrick O’Brian, The Aubrey/Maturin Novels, the British Navy ruled the seas and modern science was gaining steam. Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and Stephen Maturin, naturalist and ship’s surgeon, were in the middle of it all, sailing from one end of the earth to the other, battling Napoleon’s forces all the while. But there is more to the story than war. We first meet the main characters at a chamber concert in Port Mahon, where Stephen coldly rebukes Jack for beating time (poorly) to the music. 3) Anthony
Trollope, The Chronicles of Barsetshire and The Palliser Novels, often humorous, always engaging, portraits of life as lived by the clerical, political, and professional classes in Victorian England. Definitely not Dickens, but with a keen eye toward the acquisition and exercise of power. I can breathe easier knowing all of these books are there for the rereading.
John Lambeth, French: I would add The Plague, by Albert Camus set in the Algerian port city Oran during an outbreak of the bubonic plague and subsequent lockdown of the city. Camus vividly portrays the anguish of loss and of social isolation in the midst of an epidemic, but also the power of friendship and human solidarity in the face of suffering. Philip Roth’s Nemesis echoes Camus and also Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, but Nemesis is set during a polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey in 1944. In a totally different vein I recommend Jack E. Davis’s book, The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2018.
Domnica Radulescu, Comparative Literature: Several: 1) Boccaccio’s Decameron — Set during the Black Death that decimated one third of Europe, one hundred stories that range from the bawdiest and funniest to the most tragic and shocking. Some of the stories inspired Shakespearean plays, others inspired famous operas, all have a valuable lesson and most of all brilliant story telling. 2) Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia, an extraordinary family saga that stretches on two continents and whose protagonists are powerful passionate
women who own their destinies and defy convention. 3) Julia Alvarez’s In Time of the Butterflies, set in the Dominican Republic during the horror filled military dictatorship of General Trujillo, weaves through four different voices and narrative threads the story of the Mirabal sisters whose bravery in fighting the dictatorship became a legend of female fortitude. 4) Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, one of the most beautiful love novels in modern literature — in Duras’s luminous poetic style like no other. 5) Maya Angelou’s autobiography The Heart of a Woman — the astounding journey of a brilliant artist, activist, revolutionary, feminist and powerful woman, a fierce story of survival. 6) Anthony Doer’s All the Light you Cannot See, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Literature, one of the most heart wrenching and beautifully told stories of World War Two happening simultaneously in France and Germany with two incredible
children protagonists. 7) Domnica Radulescu’s Train to Trieste, winner of the 2009 Library of Virginia Best Fiction award — a story of political suspense, passionate first love and immigration, set in Romania during the Communist Dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu and Chicago of the nineties with an adventurous and bold female protagonist.
Extravagant Feast by Leah Naomi Green, two VERY recently published books of poetry by two of our own. Both of my copies are still in transit from publishers, but I’ve read many of the poems in journals, and I’m sure I’d take both books to a desert island … just as soon as I receive them.
Brian Murchison, Law:
On the subject of epidemics and irresponsibly botched and selfishly repressed responses, I want to recommend Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.
The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears, a beautifully written story set in three different historical periods in Avignon, and The Late George Apley by John Marquand, an unexpectedly captivating story of a privileged Boston family.
Caleb Dance, Classics:
Roger Crockett, German:
The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson. This new translation makes this ancient epic feel immediate, and it could help us all acknowledge that there are worse things than being “stuck” at home. Also, The State She’s In, by Lesley Wheeler, and The More
Jon Eastwood, Sociology: If you can add one more, appropriate for the moment (but not the book I’d truly bring to the desert island): Damon Centola, How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions (Princeton, 2018).
WASHINGTON AND LEE UNIVERSITY
Lexington, Virginia 24450-2116
In early April, we asked the W&L faculty, "If you were marooned on a desert island, what book would help you pass the time?" We explained th...
Published on Apr 22, 2020
In early April, we asked the W&L faculty, "If you were marooned on a desert island, what book would help you pass the time?" We explained th...