Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

We asked Professor of Political Science Thomas Dumm what he has been reading lately. Here’s what he told us:

I can’t distinguish between reading for leisure and reading for work any more. These days, everything feels like it has the potential to be a subject for political thinking. I even read the National Enquirer occasionally, trying to solve a mystery: what keeps Britney Spears in the news as much as Hillary Clinton?

There are books I want to read but probably won’t for a long time. These are primarily histories and biographies, mostly American. I recently found a hardback first edition of Fawn Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974). It sits on the floor by my chair, reproaching me, stacked on top of another massive tome that I bought last year, a new translation of  Michel Foucault’s History of Madness (2006). Since Foucault is one of my intellectual heroes, I know I have to get to it soon. I’ll probably find some colleagues to read it with.

Sometimes I read books by friends, which is one of the benefits of living in an intellectual community. Right now I’m in the middle of two such books. One is Chris Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds (2008), a wild social history of 19th-century writers that centers on Martin Johnson Heade, an Amherst ornithologist and writer who was connected in various ways to Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe and a whole lot of other interesting folks. I’m also reading A Phone Call to the Future (2008), a collection of poetry by another friend, Mary Jo Salter. Her language is like wrought iron—incredibly delicate and incredibly strong.

I recently finished Richard Price’s newest novel, Lush Life (2008). He is an acquired taste for some, but I find his use of vernacular to be amazing when put in the service of revealing the humanity of people on the margins. Also, after taking a break from the multitude of books on Iraq and the current occupant of the White House, a couple of weeks ago I read, almost in a single gulp, Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy (2008).

As I mentioned, reading that is initially outside of my teaching and research can work its way in. In my own new book, I write about Shakespeare, Melville, Arthur Miller and other authors who I once read only for pleasure and solace. You never know where insight might come from. And there are also writers who, on first read, you can’t stand. One of my current favorites is Emerson, and I once could not bear to read him at all. But, to paraphrase Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, the best time to make up your mind about an author is never.