Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

Elizabeth Barker, director and chief curator of the Mead Art Museum, writes about the books on her bedside table:

Today, as I mark the beginning of my third year at Amherst, I’ve been reflecting on my good fortune. I work with enviably intelligent colleagues and students and marvelous works of art. And I live in the most spacious accommodations of my adult life. My bedside table—a surface roughly equivalent to that of my entire bedroom in Manhattan—actually holds most of my current reading.

Three stacks punctuate the expanse. Farthest from reach are the volumes I’m savoring: several months of Poetry magazine; James Elkins’s The Object Stares Back, which unpacks the processes of visual perception and thereby complicates our understanding of the ways in which we see art; David Carrier’s Museum Skepticism, a compelling history of public museums with unsettling implications for their future as social institutions; and Caroline Elam’s Roger Fry and the Re-Evaluation of Piero della Francesca, an assessment of the great 20th-century critic’s reclamation of the 15th-century painter as a proto-Modernist by a leading 21st-century thinker. This book might be described as an art historian’s intellectual “turducken,” that semi-mythical delectation of a turkey stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken.

In the middle are volumes in limbo, including a handful of books I neither adore nor wish to relinquish (and which it would be tactless to mention here), as well as a book I enjoy but find necessary to read in small doses: Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. Baker describes the systematic destruction of archival newspapers as part of a national trend, initially informed by Cold War military agendas and later spurred by federal funding initiatives, in which a limited number of (often flawed) photographic replicas have come to replace unique original artifacts. Baker’s compelling story of the recent and sometimes total destruction of America’s newspapers makes for infuriating reading, and—learning my lesson after suffering sleepless nights in the early chapters—I’ve limited my intake to daylight hours.
   
Within easiest grasp are the books I’m actively reading. Anchoring the stack is the thousand-page Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, an anthology of popular crime stories from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Although the action can be too violent for my taste, Dashiell Hammett’s and Raymond Chandler’s tough metaphors can be laugh-out-loud satisfying. Next is Ingo Schulze’s New Lives, a brilliant German novel. Set in East Germany in the years leading up to reunification, it provides a fractured glimpse into the life of Enrico Türmer, a flawed but engaging protagonist. Schulze complicates his epistolary form—in which Türmer subtly alters his description of events in letters to different recipients—by including drafts of the protagonist’s semi-autobiographical novel and inserting bitingly critical editorial footnotes. It must have been as satisfying to write as it is to read.

Lastly, on top of the nearest pile is a paperback I’ve just started, Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George. On the basis of its first 30 pages, I’m happy to recommend it.