Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Wait a minute: has violence declined? The first 361 pages argue that it has. A significant decline since records began; all forms that can be measured: murder, rape, war, etc. You might be thinking: wait a minute, World War I, World War II?! This is where you might disagree with what Pinker means by "violence has declined". He means the rate has declined, not the total number of people dying from it. A war that killed 2 million people back in the 8th Century, Pinker says, is much worse than a war that killed 2 million people nowadays, because there was less people then (it killed a larger percentage of the world back then). Get it? So taking the world population in consideration, Pinker is definitely correct that the rate of violence has gone down (all his graphs show a steep decline from top-left to bottom-right). In other words, if hypothetically you could pick any time period to live in, you may want to pick now because overall you have the least probability of dying from violence (unless you get dropped in Wash. DC!).
Another piece of his argument is to say that many forms of violence have been simply eliminated; no more witch burning, no nukes have been used, no great powers have fought since 1953, slavery has almost been eliminated, and so on. There's a whole new moral consciousness, caused by numerous developments (social, political, economical)--it's not that human nature changed.
Some people are a little worried about Pinker's arguments because they sound "old fashioned"; a little "arrow-of-history-ish" (history is pointing us towards some goal) which has a bad track record; or they sound a little ethnocentrist (civilized people are way better than primitive people who live in a state of war constantly); or a little democracy-biased. Plus I bet some historians are saying "who does this linguist think he is!" He is aware of these concerns, which is part of the pull to read the book (and watch his youtube videos).
Whether you have reservations or not, this book is an enormous endeavor, an audaciously large project that I cannot help but appreciate as such. It's part of a new trend to "mathmatize" history, using numbers to tell the story. I am amazed that one man could write on so many topics, pulling from so many sources. And it helps that Pinker is a master at writing good sentences that flow. There are hundreds of talking points. If you like history and evolutionary psychology, I recommend this book especially (oh did I mention it's really long?).
Better Angels of our Nature
When I read that Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the Legend was Library Journal’s pick for top nonfiction title of 2011, I was intrigued.
Author Susan Orlean has written a wonderfully readable book, not only about Rin Tin Tin, the iconic dog star of films and TV. Her story ranges widely and touches on the early history of Hollywood and films, the bravery and use of animals in war, and much more.
The story begins on a battlefield in France during World War I. A young American soldier, Lee Duncan, discovers an orphaned German shepherd puppy in a bombed out kennel. He has left his own dog behind in America, and adopts the small pup. Duncan, who was raised in an orphanage, feels an affinity with the abandoned dog, whom he names Rin Tin Tin. He immediately senses that this is an extraordinary dog, and is fortunately able to bring “Rinty” back to the US. The rest, as the saying goes, is history—and what a ride it is!
Susan Orlean is a respected reporter who spent ten years researching and writing this book, the story of a dog born in 1918 and his descendants, and the people who loved them and helped to insure their legacy.
This is a book for all people who have ever had or loved a dog.
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain of the 15th century were important figures in history. Sister Queens tells the story of two of their daughters, Katherine and Juana. Born Spanish princesses, both women became queens - Katherine was the wife of Henry VIII, King of England, and Juana married Phillip of Burgundy before becoming heir to her parent's kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. Both women were raised to fill the role of queen to further the goals of their country of birth and produce heirs. It seemed this was well underway with the politically advantageous marriages they had secured, but things began to turn for the worse quickly, especially in Juana's case.
Juana's marriage started out well, but she was soon forced into submission by her husband, Phillip. Developing her own method of retaliation to this treatment she would throw tantrums and refuse to eat or go to church for days. These acts fueled her adversaries' claims that she was psychologically unsound. After Phillip died, she had an opportunity to escape this tyranny but only for a short time, for soon after, her father had her confined in Tordesillas. Once her father had died her captor swiftly became her own son. Portrayed throughout history as "Juana the Mad", author Julia Fox sheds new light on the ways Juana fought against her oppression. The figure history has passed down to us seems to be very different from the actual person Juana was.
Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII also went through ups and downs, as those who have even a slight idea of how Henry VIII lived probably know! Much more extant information survives about Katherine than Juana, and through her letters and actions readers get the impression that she was a very strong and determined woman, one which did not obey the notion that the world in this time should be controlled by men. Leading England in battle, negotiating marriages for herself and other young women, for many years being the primary confidant and partner of her powerful husband…she was resilient and independent. She had learned the art of politicking from her mother, which she had all but mastered. But the tides began to turn for her after a number of failed pregnancies, her later life destined to be much different from her earlier years.
This book gives readers very interesting insight into the world of the 15th and 16th century European leaders. Author Julia Fox uses great primary references to help us understand what may have been going through the minds of the characters found within the pages of her book. The subtitle to the book is "The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile". Their lives were indeed tragic, but noble as well. Fox does a great job of intertwining the lives of the sisters. She is also very good at showing the development of the characters throughout the story. Readers can see how the events in their lives changed the characters' personalities and how specific individual characteristics became more dominate with time. This double biography has been a read I have thoroughly enjoyed!
Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile
On April 15, 1912, the date RMS Titanic sank, my grandparents were living and working on a farm in northeastern Iowa, the state in which they settled when they came to this country. Fifty years later, as a young boy, I was at their home, which by then was in Kalamazoo, and one of the Titanic movies appeared on their television. Now, 50 years after that, I can still remember what an impression that disaster had made on my grandmother and how she gave me her recollections of the event. The 100th anniversary of the sinking is this month. I'm glad KPL has my favorite book on the subject (pictured to the left), which was originally written in 1912 and reissued in 2012.
Wreck and sinking of the Titanic : the ocean's greatest disaster
Jacqueline Kennedy was a woman who desperately wanted a private life. Clint Hill was the man who was charged with giving her as much of a private life as he was able.
As one of two Secret Service agents on the First Lady’s protective detail, he tells their amazing story in Mrs. Kennedy and Me. Although the stories in this memoir are fascinating, what is most compelling is Mr. Hill’s fierce dedication and loyalty to Mrs. Kennedy as she lived a life that was so very public.
Mrs. Kennedy and Me
Eulinda’s story takes place during the civil war in 1864. Her father was the plantation owner and although he was kind to her, he was willing to do only so much. She had been acknowledged as his daughter, lived in the plantation home, and had received an education. She received castoff clothing from the master’s stepdaughter and was treated a little better than the rest of the slaves. That much of the story is fictional but most of Numbering All the Bones was built on facts taken from records on Andersonville Prison. The Andersonville prison was the most horrific prison in the American Civil War. Ann Rinaldi added real characters and real facts to her fictional story. William Griffin was a real ex-confederate officer, who came along and saw the 13,000 bodies and knew that the prison was something he had to set right. He tolled, first paying ex-slaves to work along side of him, out of his own money. They dug graves, painted headstones and planted flowers. It became Dorence Atwater ambition to dig up the Negro bodies to get the names off the toe tags on the bodies and reburied them with their names on the headstones. And then there was Clara Barton…but, I’ve already told too much.
Even though, this book was written for children it really captured me and I enjoyed reading how Eulinda made herself come true.
Numbering All the Bones
Lincoln would lean back on his chair to do his thinking. He would think about his speeches months in advance, writing and re-writing (yes it appears people wrote their own speeches back then). He would mumble the words out loud, get friends to read them aloud; and when it came time, he would read his speeches slowly (as I'm sure he did in Kalamazoo). What amazed me about this biography is that Lincoln's so called "eloquence" came with a lot of work. As a poor young man he would walk six miles to get a grammar book. Largely self-taught, he would devour books on grammar and speaking. Lincoln was very fond of the Psalms and used them for his speeches. For example, the main point of his Second Inaugural comes from Psalms 19:9: “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln really was a brave man. On his way to office he said: “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.” By "it" he meant the American promise "that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance." Indeed he was.
Now his track record on slavery is, according to the many biographies and books, ambiguous. He was sort of a split personality. His personal attitude towards slavery seemed to stay the same throughout his political career; but his political attitudes changed.
First Inaugural address:
"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."
Later, after the war breaks out, Garrison and others are screaming for Lincoln to make a statement on slavery, to the make the war to be about slavery (as I said in my previous blog, people like Emerson wouldn't even let his son enlist for this reason). Lincoln replies immediately:
“if I could save the union and not save a single slave, I would do it. If I could save the union and save all the slaves, I would do it." Which this ends: "personally I wish all men were free." He also said “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.”
Eventually he does make slavery the cause of the war:
“Without slavery the rebelion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue” (181).
He realized that “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free” (187), or as Martin Luther King would say, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” and “I must not ignore the wounded man on life's Jericho Road, because he is a part of me and I am a part of him. His agony diminishes me, and his salvation enlarges me."
the eloquent president
Emerson once dreamed that the world shrunk into an apple. An angel told him to eat it, and so he did. A fitting image of transcendentalist thought! The world is so small we can eat it; the mind prevails,"there was never any thing that did not proceed from a thought"; a single human being can do anything.
By most accounts Emerson was a great American, a great speaker, and a great man. He was a transcendentalist, a nature writer, a Unitarian minister, a teacher, a literary figure, a speaker (yes, that was his profession!), a poet. He was anti-slavery, anti-establishment, pro-women's rights (all when it was "unfashionable"); and, even through family deaths and sorrows, he was a champion of unbridled and unparalleled optimism. But what impresses me most is the degree to which he thought for himself, went his own way, and fearlessly lived.
At 24 Emerson visits the South. He's at a bible study. He can hear a slave auction outside. He and his wife, part of the Underground Railroad in Boston, would always be vocal against slavery. On the Emancipation Proclamation he said: “[Lincoln] has been permitted to do more for America than any other American man.” When the war was only about saving the Union, he wouldn't’t let his son enlist. He supported John Brown. In 1844 even the churches wouldn't open their doors for his speeches, which fueled his distrust of organized religion: “God builds his temple in the heart, on the ruins of churches and religions."
On the unity of all persons: “There is one mind common to all individual men” Like Thoreau's chant "Simplicity!" Emerson's chant was "Identity, identity! Friend and foe are one stuff, and the stuff is such and so much that the variations of surface are unimportant.” On us and Nature: “There is a relation between man and nature so that whatever is in matter is in mind.” On beauty: “all is in each” and “the standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms—the totality of nature.” He was so convinced in the power of a single individual that he said "properly there is no history, only biography." In other words, if you want to learn history, read a bunch of biographies--history is nothing but a list of great and terrible people. But we are all potentially great people: “each fine genius that appears is already predicted in our constitution.” In a stoic and Christian way, he thought groups of people only make things worse. After witnessing the French Revolution, he says “It is always becoming evident that the permanent good is for the soul only and cannot be retained in any society or system...the world is always childish." On courage, peace, and nonviolence Emerson was like Martin Luther King Jr: "Courage is grounded always on a belief in the identity of the nature of my enemy with my own [nature], that he with whom you contend is no more than you."
Yes I recommend this biography, but it's a commitment (due to length).
Emerson: Mind on Fire
To recognize the first 25 years of the label, Def Jam Records has released this huge coffee table style book that celebrates the artists and personalities that helped take Def Jam from a scrappy young label that focused on getting the fresh new sound of hip hop on record to a bonafide pop culture icon. With photographs from across the labels first quarter century and essays from its founders, artists, and top executives, Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label chronicles all that has made the label what it is today and walks those of us who grew into adulthood alongside Def Jam down a beautifully constructed rap music memory lane.
Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label
We are what we read. But how do we decide what to read? Normally we don't have a systematic program for our reading life. Perhaps a friend told us, or the "customers also bought this..." on Amazon.com, or our last book mentioned it, or we heard it on NPR or Oprah. These are all great, but there's many other ways. Try the Now Read This through our website. Or, if you want a Read-a-Like based on an author you like, try our Books and Authors database (or try Good Reads or LibraryThing).
But, if you want to get super serious, we have tons of books that are about books (i.e. bibliographies, "treasuries," "anthologies," "companions").
Based on Age:
1001 children's books you must read before you grow up, 100 best books for children, The Book of virtues for young people : a treasury of great moral stories, Black Books Galore! Guide to great African American children's books about girls, 500 Great Books for Teens, Disabilities and disorders in literature for youth : a selective annotated bibliography for K-12, The Ultimate Teen Book Guide
"I just want the classics!" (usually this means great literature, not necessary from the Classical period):
Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Magill's survey of world literature, Literature Lovers Companion: the essential reference to the world’s greatest writers—past and present, popular and classical, Assessing the Classics: great reads for adults, teens, and English language learners, The modern library : the two hundred best novels in English since 1950, Harvard Classics series (has the actual writings)
Short Story Writers, The Essential Mystery Lists, Harold Bloom writes several books, e.g. on British Women Fiction Writers, Asian American Women Writers, Major Black American Writers, Classic Science Fiction Writers, and more.
To find the major books in an academic field, like philosophy or physics or astronomy, look for an introductory book. They usually have primary sources and "further reading" sections.
Racial or Cultural Identity:
African Writers, Sacred fire : the QBR 100 essential Black books, Concise encyclopedia of Latin American literature, Native American literatures : an encyclopedia of works, characters, authors, and themes
Movements and Places:
Literary movements for students : presenting analysis, context, and criticism on commonly studied literary movements, Promised Land: 13 books that shaped America, The Oxford companion to American literature (we also have these for Austrialian, French, Canadian, and more); Michigan in the Novel (really cool book list of novels set in MI or about MI)
Have fun reading, and slow down to think!
1001 Books for Every Mood