What We're Reading

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What We're Reading

The editors share their summer picks.

Read Time:
5m 53sec

Cullen Nutt: Yesterday I finished the last line of Alan Jacobs’ slim but satisfying book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Though it’s a mere 150 pages, it took me several months to finally go the distance. Jacobs, an English professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, might applaud this. He argues in favor of reading slowly and deliberately, of taking more notes, of re-reading, and, most important, of reading at Whim, which he reverentially capitalizes. Reading at Whim means letting go of guilt and obligation and reading what interests us. It also means shaking off the dangerous habit of reading to have read: to impress other people or to check off a book from some list. (I’m guilty of these tendencies.) Little wonder that 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die comes in for some very harsh criticism here.

In fact, Jacobs would rather we bluff than surrender whim. “It is wrong to lie, but it may be still more wrong to read a bunch of books you don’t want to read,” he writes, “in order to impress people whose opinion you shouldn’t be deferring to anyhow.” Instead, “take a little time to figure out what people will be impressed to hear that you’re reading, use Wikipedia to find out just enough about these books to enable you to bluff plausibly when questioned—and then go back home and read whatever you want to read.” Amen to Whim.

Darcy Courteau: I just finished David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and I can’t remember when I was last so enchanted with a novel, or so wistful when it ended. The story happens in 1799 on an artificial island in Nagasaki Harbor, the only place in Japan where Westerners are allowed. It’s a no-man’s-land where employees of the Dutch East Indies Company serve multi-year contracts, passing the time with prostitutes, drink, and the graft that finally sank the actual company. It’s a hard place for a person softened with books and study, but accountant de Zoet is determined to stay true to his principles.

The ease of Mitchell’s telling—this is first and foremost a reader’s book—belies the insane amount of research that certainly went into detailing 18th-century corporate politicking, seafaring, arcane medical practices (the scene of a kidney stone’s removal is as fascinating as it is ghastly). Mitchell often stacks single-sentence paragraphs one on top of another, creating a sort of elegant, vertical script in keeping with the Japanese setting:

      He turns to his sketch and sets about shading the sea with charcoal.

      Curious, the oarsmen lean over; Jacob shows them the page:

      The older oarsman makes a face to say, Not bad.

      A shout from a guard boat startles the pair: they return to their posts.

Don’t take Thousand Autumns to the beach if you plan on getting any swimming in.

Steve Lagerfeld: The breeziest book I’ve read so far this summer is, believe it or not, David Wessel’s Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget. I got to know David when he was writing the book in an office a few doors down from mine here at the Wilson Center so I may be slightly biased, but there’s no doubt that it’s a remarkably readable work—I particularly liked his useful history of our modern budget struggles. 

Parking may be the most underappreciated activity in American life—think of all the time and resources devoted to this everyday act—so I recently added Eran Ben-Joseph’s Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking to my parking library (yes, I have one). Ben-Joseph’s argument for a more humane approach to parking lot design may be a bit much for those who aren’t parking aficionados, but there’s a lot of interesting observation here, along with great facts: If all of the parking spaces in the United States were combined, they would cover an area the size of Puerto Rico. Facts galore populate Franklin E. Zimring’s The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and its Control, an overlooked analysis of the causes behind perhaps the greatest policy triumph in decades, the suppression of crime, as seen through the lens of New York City’s experience. It’s good to be reminded that not everything is going to hell in a hand basket.

Megan Buskey: In a couple of weeks, I’m pulling up stakes and moving to the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. In preparation, I’m making my way through Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970 (1980) by historian James Borchert. After the Civil War, Borchert writes, the population of the capital swelled. With transportation limited to horse and buggy, space in neighborhoods such as Shaw, which is just north of downtown, was highly prized. Stately Victorian row houses proliferated along the neighborhood’s streets, but poor, usually African-American families made do with shacks and modest homes in the alleys behind them. Alley dwellings eventually landed in the crosshairs of social reformers such as Eleanor Roosevelt on account of what was deemed their hazardous conditions, and the city razed and regulated its way to alley-free living by the 1970s. Now, as with many survivors from the past in a reenergized D.C., the alleys that remain are being revived—a set on my new block is host to a coffee and waffles shop, a boxing gym, and an upscale molecular gastronomy restaurant. These developments may be welcome news to gentrifiers like me, but Borchert’s enduring work ensures that the history of the area will not be lost.  

Michael Hendrix: After a few too many dry history books in a row this spring, I borrowed Salman Rushdie’s short novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) from a friend. Haroun, a young boy, and his father venture into a fantastical dreamworld, defending the story-loving Land of Gup against the silence-worshipping hordes of Khattam-Shud. The book’s themes led reviewers to note the parallel between the persecution Rushdie faced across the Muslim world for his Satanic Verses (1988) and the danger of “silencing” faced by the mythical Kingdom of Gup. Rushdie flaunts his talents at wordplay as few others can; names of characters and places are often puns in English, Hindustani, or both. Haroun combines the creativity of Dr. Seuss with mature thematic depth. For those looking for a refreshing break from nonfiction, Haroun fits the bill perfectly.

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