President's Blog

Posts tagged reading

And I’m Back On Campus. . .

After a wonderfully restful break, I’m back on campus. With the students away, it’s peaceful and I have time to take the dogs on extra-long walks: their favorite is the Dairy Loop so that they can visit the horses. Very soon, though,  it will begin to seem slightly too peaceful and I’ll be eagerly looking forward to the day the students return.

This trip brought the opportunity to read some things I’ve been hoping to get to for a while. First, I finished Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace (started a while ago but laid aside in the press of the end of the semester.) Kate Summerscale writes lively and thoughtful histories of 19th-century cases. A while back I blogged about a previous book of hers, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher; to my delight I enjoyed Mrs. Robinson’s story even more than I had Mr. Whicher’s. Summerscale tells the story of the Robinson’s case in the newly-created English divorce court to raise questions about the evidentiary status of Mrs. Robinson’s diary. Was it a record of actual events? The expression of a neurotic and confused imagination? A series of quasi-literary fictional exercises? Much hinged on these ultimately unanswerable questions.

Having finished Mrs. Robinson’s story, I turned at last to a book given to me by a very good friend last summer — The Hare With Amber Eyes. If you haven’t read this, I think you should. As soon as possible. As Roger Cohen says, in a New York Times op-ed, this book is “a meditation on Jewish upheaval and loss.” Tracing the history of a family collection of netsuke, Edmund de Waal tells the story of the Ephrussis — a vastly wealthy, multinational, cosmopolitan Jewish family — from the late years of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st. Connected with avant-garde literary and artistic circles in Paris and Vienna, consulted by governments, stalwarts of influential clubs and civic organizations, the Ephrussis could simply not conceive that their Jewish identity might still put everything they had at risk. But of course, by 1938 it was apparent that indeed it could and did: I’ll confess that I cried while reading the chapter on the Anschluss. And I cried again, later in the book, while reading about how the netsuke collection was saved and returned to the family. For this is a story not only about upheaval and loss but also about memory, and survival, and the consolation of preserving both objects and stories.

Often, I find that I discover commonalities in books I read one after another. These two, different as they are in tone and topic, both illustrate a historian’s research process. Summerscale and de Waal set out to answer questions they have about the past, and both document the twists and turns and clarities and uncertainties that they encounter in doing so. Both reminded me of how richly challenging it is to attempt to understand the ways that other lives in other times were different from our own. . .


PS: I read two other books on this trip as well: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (charming fun) and The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. (Fascinating and probably deserving of its own post.)



Home again, home again. . .

I’m pleased — no, delighted — to report that I’m back on campus after vacation followed by some visits with Sweet Briar alumnae and supporters. Now to get ready for the best part of winter break — preparing to welcome the students back at the end of it!

In my last post, I made bold assertions about my plans for vacation reading. Naturally I didn’t manage to get through everything I hoped I would, but I certainly enjoyed what I did manage to read.

Several of you sent notes saying that you too are reading, or planning to read, the new biography of Catherine the Great. I highly recommend it — although my reactions to it were not uncomplicated, made all the more so by the conjunction of reading it with Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. (I hadn’t realized that I’d be spending so much time in the 18th century on this trip, between the biography of Catherine and a long novel about the French Revolution, but as it turned out I was.) Both books, to my mind, emphasized the relationship of political ideals and political realities, focusing on the tension between intensely felt commitment to values in the abstract and intensely experienced difficulties in realizing them in practice. Catherine, as Massie presents her, struggled throughout her reign with reconciling Enlightenment values that inspired her with the realities of governing Russia. (The French Revolution played an important role in Catherine’s thinking, of course, as an example of what she wanted to avoid at all costs.) Mantel, in her novel, follows fictionalized versions of Robespierre, Desmoulins, and Danton through the Revolution, charting the twists and turns of their convictions as events unfolded around them, ultimately spiraling out of their control.

Since I was already so deep into the 18th century, I rounded out the trio by reading Death Comes to Pemberley, which was light, witty, and great fun. (Oddly enough, the French Revolution appears in this book too, as a character complacently reflects that the general superiority of British ways of life is the best insurance against such upheavals.) P.D. James cleverly interweaves the conventions of an Austen-like “little bit . . . of ivory” with those of a modern detective novel.

At the last minute, I picked up The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher for a plane ride and to continue the detective theme. This is a compelling piece of non-fiction, set in the earliest days of professional police detection. I couldn’t put it down — and neither could my sister, to whom I gave it. This book, depicting a time when the nature of “evidence” and the rights and privileges of the “detective” were under debate, offers not only a gripping story but also interesting reflections on to what lengths we can or should go to pursue the truth, and how we can possibly know whether we’ve gotten there.

Which also turned out to be a theme of my final book. Finally, whew, Two Lives, Janet Malcolm’s fascinating book about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Malcolm brought me full circle back to Massie and Catherine the Great: she poses fundamental questions about what it means to attempt biography and the very possibility of biographical knowledge, even as she offers provocative insights into the two biographies she considers.

There can be no greater treat than time to read at length. . .