What We’re Reading
After teaching the EN 102 “Advancing Mind & Body” course several years in a row, I became interested in researching and writing a general nonfiction book about the mind-body connection. Since then, my reading has expanded into some really fun areas. My first new author in this realm was Bruce Lipton, a former academic who taught Cell Biology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine. I’m really fascinated by his theories of “epigenetics” and its implications for improved physical and mental health.
As I sped through Lipton’s books, I discovered a host of others writing about what’s being labelled as the New Science. Currently, I’m going through the work of Ervin László, a Hungarian systems theorist who writes convincingly of the intersections of cosmology and evolutionary biology. I’ve also just discovered Amit Goswami, who recently retired from the University of Oregon, where he was a professor in the Department of Physics for nearly three decades. Really, all three of these authors, Lipton, László, and Goswami are such a pleasure to read, because they write with such intellectual authority about the emerging field of consciousness research.
I’m currently reading and rereading Gary Soto’s A Fire in My Hands. Many people recommended Soto’s work to me in the past, so I was happy to come across a copy of his work during the department’s book sale in honor of our late colleague, Carolyn Handa. His work is deceptively simple. A wide range of readers could enjoy A Fire in My Hands. The accessibility of the poems does not take away from the craft, though. Beneath the nostalgia and lyric, there’s a valuable insight into adolescent masculinity, race, and class. As a poet—can I call myself a poet yet? Sure, I guess I can—I’m drawn to books that engaged their audience on multiple levels. The collection is also filled with illustrations to complement the poems. And, as a fan of graphic novels, I’m always interested in how visual elements can enhance the text of a manuscript.
On the top of the dresser that sits next to my bed, along with a lamp, discarded jewelry, and other small items I don’t know what to do with, is a stack of books that’s a pretty good representation of what I’m currently reading. The stack usually grows until there’s no more room to grow; then I thin it out and the process begins again. But right now it contains Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, Eileen Myles’ Maxfield Parrish, and the latest issue of Harper’s.
A slew of other texts are research for the book I’m currently writing, which has at its heart NIH immunologist Polly Matzinger. Polly has developed a model for the immune system that challenges the “self/non-self” model currently dominating American biology. That model says that the immune system attacks all foreigners, while Polly’s “Danger Model” says that only dangerous things cause responses. There’s a slow paradigm shift happening (text: Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) as scientists and researchers begin to accept the Danger Model and rethink classifications and treatments of diseases. My book will explore conceptions of self all the way from the molecular (text: Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell) to the global scale, with stops to think about national borders (text: Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza) and botanical immigrants along the way. Right now, I’m particularly interested in the parasitic bacteria bdellovibrio (text: “Bdellovibrio as therapeautic agents: a predatory renaissance?” in Nature Reviews: Microbiology), which forms a structure called a bdelloplast after entering its host, modifying itself and its prey in the process.
I’m reading (& close to finishing) a new book entitled Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton UP, 2014) by James Turner. I am also planning for my reflections on this book to become the core of an essay review I am preparing (on request) for a publication called The Age of Johnson, a journal that specializes in literary topics in the second half of the 18th century.
The derring-do of Turner’s book is truly breathtaking. He takes us back to the earliest times, following the invention of writing, when philology, or more properly the philological method, began to dominate what we call classical literary scholarship (initially, Homer, principally, but also others). From there he takes up through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and then the Reformation, shifting towards Biblical studies, then to the “new” practices of “editing” the texts of native English writers (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson). Then on into the 18th and 19th centuries and the glacial shift from Latin and Greek, then the heart of any respectable university curriculum, on to what Turner calls the “disciplines” that then take shape as the departments that constitute the “modern humanities” in virtually every college and university in the English-speaking world. And this brief summary only hints at what Turner covers in his 380 pages of text. The glory and the scandal of this book are one and the same: its sheer boldness, made abundantly evident in the size and the scope of the project it undertakes.
In my own view, though, the most important message in the book may be one that is left unspoken in its pages. Turner’s book is, under the cover of scholarship, giving voice to the gnawing anxiety about the future of the humanities as we have known and cherished them for the last hundred years or so. Changes start to percolate only when we are no longer certain that what we are doing is what we should be doing. That is when we start to wonder how it is we got to where we are today. Sure enough, some rough beast is slouching to be born.
If anyone wants to find out an answer as to how and why we got where we are, even if it be in sometimes painful detail, then Turner’s book is a book for them.
Recently, I have been reading Flannery O’Conner’s short stories. I am teaching a literature based composition class, and the required textbook is the Norton Introduction to Literature 11th Edition. As a high school student, I remember reading a bit of O’Conner’s work. I liked the dialogue of her characters. In fact, I liked her characters. You see, I was born and raised in Alabama. Sadly enough, I recognized O’Conner’s characters (usually from family gatherings): the grandmother who never stops talking, the grown man who cannot break away from his mother, the daughter-in-law who forever goes unnoticed, and the nosey, overbearing, interfering, gossipy neighbor lady that everyone wants to cold-cock but politely endures. As an adult, I still love O’Conner’s characters; however, it is her sense of Christian hope that fascinates and challenges me. O’Conner once said that she wrote because she was Catholic. Today, I am more aware of O’Conner’s dedication to Colossians 3:17. With every word, O’Conner expresses her Christian faith. Her characters suffer. They cry. They fall. They die. However, their misery brings redemption (at least the opportunity for redemption). O’Conner loved her characters, and she loved her readers … me. With this in mind, maybe, I can revisit Wise Blood and half-way understand it this time around.
Since I have three children, I spend a lot of time reading to them. Currently we are finishing up the Laura Ingalls Wilder series (we are on These Happy Golden Years). I have three boys who have thoroughly enjoyed vicarious frontier life. In addition, my children are interested in their Scottish heritage, and since I have a Douglas, a William, and a Malcolm, we have been reading about Scottish heroes sporting the same names. We have finished a biography of James the Good (aka “The Black Douglas”). We are finishing up one on William Wallace, and we are searching for a suitable one on King Malcolm. My own reading is limited this semester by the urgency of fairly intensive prep work for a course I’ve never taught, but on my nightstand sit The Dubliners, Chamber Music, and a typescript (that is the result of my own research) of variants of Faulkner’s poems, all of which I am sort of working through in tandem. I am also spending some time reading about Edgar Allen Poe’s reception in France. I consider all of this nightstand stuff to be intertwined reading, though, I confess, there’s nothing very orderly about it.