Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

For this issue, we asked several members of the faculty to tell us about good books that they have read or re-read recently that they recommend enthusiastically to others. Here are the responses we received:

David W. Blight, Class of 1959 Professor of History and Black Studies: W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963, by David Levering Lewis (Henry Holt, 2000). In this second of a two-volume biography of Du Bois, Lewis, a great craftsman and meticulous researcher, uncovers the second half of the epic life of the most important African-American intellectual and civil rights leader of the 20th century. Sparing little in Du Bois's personal life of many relationships with women, Lewis delivers an astoundingly detailed portrait of the man who became more radical with age, whose vision of racial equality in America became beleaguered late in life.

Howell D. Chickering, Jr., G. Armour Craig Professor of Language and Literature: Pushkin's Button, by Serena Vitale, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein and Jon Rothchild (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1995). It reconstructs the social and marital circumstances leading up to the poet's fatal duel with Georges D'Anthès, Baron von Heeckeren, in January of 1837. Vitale had access to hitherto unknown documents in the Heeckeren family archives. Her tragicomic narrative registers the shortcomings and pretensions of St. Petersburg society with spry, kindly irony. She writes with skepticism and verve.

Tom Gerety, President, Professor of Philosophy: Montaillou: village occitan de 1294 à 1324, by Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie (Gallimard, 1975). It's a study of one small mountain village in the French Pyrennees. Nearly all the material in the book is culled from the records of the Inquisition, which was merciless in Montaillou, interrogating (and punishing) half its inhabitants. I have always found the Cathars—or Albigensians—fascinating. This book gives a vivid sense of how they lived—and died. The book is also available in English.

George S. Greenstein, Sidney Dillon Professor of Astronomy: Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, by Barry Lopez (Scribner's, 1986). There are very few books I have read twice. This is one. 'Nuff said!

Margaret R. Hunt, Professor of History and Women's and Gender Studies: Dreambirds: The Strange History of the Ostrich in Fashion, Food and Fortune, by Rob Nixon (Picador, 2000). A beautifully written memoir/meditation on childhood, the South African veldt, the end of apartheid, boom and bust economies, and . . . a huge, flightless bird with two-inch-long eyelashes and tail feathers more valuable than gold.

Catherine C. McGeoch, Associate Professor of Computer Science: Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace, by Lawrence Lessig (Basic Books, 1999). A law professor sets out the major issues and questions relating to preservation of our basic freedoms and the evolution of the Internet. One reviewer calls it "dark and exhilarating"; it is also very thorough, thoughtful, and well-written.

Norton Starr, Professor of Mathematics: A Personal Odyssey, by Tom Sowell (The Free Press, 2000). Autobiography of an economist whose integrity gets him in difficult situations again and again. He taught here for a semester in the '70s. The Class Choregus, by David Morine (Sabrina Press, 1993). Roman à clef about the road to graduation for an athletic, testosteronic, boozing, irreverent member of the Class of 1966. A riot at every turn.

Helen von Schmidt, Senior Lecturer in English: Waiting for the Barbarians, by J. M. Coetzee (Penquin, 1982). The story of the magistrate of a remote border outpost in an unnamed empire, an empire obsessed by the threat of never yet seen barbarians, whom they nevertheless hold responsible for all their woes. Far from the seat of power, this man has "wanted to live outside history" and has to face the impossibility of that wish. This haunting, compelling novel, closer to a fable, has all the force and all the enigma of our most powerful myths.