Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

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Hilary Moss, assistant professor of history and black studies

We asked Hilary Moss, assistant professor of history and black studies, what she has been reading lately. Here’s what she told us:

I often wonder what I would do if I could not teach. As a historian of the early 19th century, my marketable skills—deciphering early American handwriting, making sense of the census and mastering an ornery microfilm machine—probably have limited utility in a 21st-century world. But I do have one talent I think I could capitalize on: picking out books for my mother.

A bit of background first. To my mother, books, like meals, are meant to be finished: “If you are served something, you finish it,” she reminds me, “whether you like it or not.” While this philosophy has served her well in motherhood and in life, it has had the opposite effect on her reading. While she spent her childhood summers lost in books, as an adult, the compulsion to finish something—whether she liked it or not—led her to read less and less.

With the knowledge that my mother would not become a reader again unless she started good books, I have begun to pre-screen her reading. I try to select for strong women (both authors and characters), a swiftly moving story and graceful prose. Below are a few books I’ve read recently that have met that test. 

Set in the Belgian Congo in the mid-20th century, The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, follows the wife and four daughters of Baptist missionary Nathan Price. “Religion drove [Price’s] entire being to the detriment of his family and those around him,” my mother reports, “but the family members that did survive became stronger than had they not lived that experience.”

Next, I gave my mother March, by Geraldine Brooks, which I chose because of its link to one of her all-time favorites, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. March takes up the story of the March girls’ father, John March, during his time as a Union Army chaplain in the Civil War. I liked this book because I could lose myself in the beauty of antebellum New England and the sadness of the war-ravaged South. My mother enjoyed reconnecting with characters she once loved and seeing them in a new light.

Next on my mother’s reading list is Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, loosely based on the life of Laura Bush. Like March, American Wife will reintroduce her to someone she thought she knew. If my mother likes this, I’m flirting with the idea of giving her Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, which pokes even more fun at Americans and their politics. Should she wish to cry rather than laugh, I think I’ll send her The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu, who, like Shteyngart, looks skeptically at the American Dream and explores what is lost by leaving home. By that point, I hope she’ll be ready to strike out on her own.