Faculty Reading Recommendations May Guide Book Lovers

October 14, 2008

October 14, 2008 — With so many books and so little time, selecting something to read can be a daunting task.

"What Should I Read Next?,"
a book of reading recommendations from 70 University of Virginia professors, should help with this dilemma. Compiled by English professor Jessica R. Feldman and graduate student Robert Stilling, it is a collection of recommendations by experts for casual readers who want to learn more about various fields. The University of Virginia Press published the book in September.    

"A friend of mine wanted to know what to read next," Feldman said. That's what sparked her idea for a book about books, but not a definitive reading list.

"'What Should I Read Next?"is a starting point for reading, not a comprehensive reading plan," Feldman said. "All of the contributors are intent on reaching out to people who want suggestions for reading. And it's the discussion of each list that makes this book different from all of the reading lists available out there on the Web and elsewhere."
The book is divided into five sections: "History, Memory, Politics," "Mathematics, Science, Technology," "Literature," "The Arts" and "Mind, Body, Spirit." Each contribution consists of a list of five books (with a short explanation or description of each book) along with a 750-word essay describing what gives the list coherence — what lies behind the choice of these books. Exceptions are the contributions by English professor Michael Levenson, who recommended five separate sections of James Joyce's "Ulysses," and art history professor Paul Barolsky, who recommended five sections of Ovid's "Metamorphoses."

Some of the recommended authors, such as Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Harvard law professor Michael Klarman and UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond, are included more than once. Diamond is featured on three lists with two books, Heaney on two lists with two books and Klarman on two lists with one book.

The suggested books include technical works, classics, modern novels and elements of popular culture, such as a Michael Crichton novel among tomes on global warming.

"There is a great deal of talk at the University about interdisciplinary studies," Feldman said. "And we see interdisciplinary work in these lists. For example, we have historians who have recommended novels, a psychologist and a psychiatrist who both recommend works of anthropology, and a scholar of religion who recommends works of art history and politics."

Stilling said it was a challenge for him. Working with essays and selections out of his field forced him to stretch and "put myself in a different intellectual space.

"I learned a lot about different disciplines and how to manage a big project," Stilling said.

Once Feldman had the concept, she considered getting contributions from professors at other universities, but realized that wasn't necessary.

"We have such a wealth of faculty here, and they are very good at speaking and explaining things to nonspecialists," she said. "We realized we could stay within the University and have compelling contributors."

She circulated a request for recommendations among some faculty members, knowing that many were busy and could not participate. When 70 faculty members responded, she encouraged them to write and select for a general audience.

"I asked them to consider how they would explain their list to bright undergraduates," she said. "This worked for even the more technically challenging entries."

The essays also brought out passion.

"The essays were so beautifully written, showing the enthusiasm of the professors for their subjects," Feldman said. "They seemed to get the target audience right away."

"People will learn just from the essays," Stilling added.

"The subjects are so wide-ranging," said Penelope J. Kaiserlian, director of the University of Virginia Press. "It's great to have if you are getting ready to go on vacation or to retire. There are some classics in here but some are fairly recent."

The press has done an initial printing of 2,500 copies, but already 1,000 copies have been taken within the University for promotional purposes, and Kaiserlian believes the press will have a second printing. She thinks it is ideal for book clubs.

"This can become a classic, with new editions that are updated," she said.

The initial release was slated to coincide with the start of the school year, as the professors are handing out their own reading lists in classes.

"This went pretty quickly for a book with 70 contributors," Kaiserlian said.

Feldman, who is now at work on a scholarly book about modernist writers and artists who were intrigued by gems and geology, said she experienced a bit of letdown when the two-year project was completed, much like missing the characters in a favorite novel.  Stilling, who is writing a dissertation on modernist poetry, echoed this sentiment.

"This has been an extraordinary experience for me as a beginning scholar," he said.

— By Matt Kelly