Bedtime Stories: Sept. 2015

  • September 16, 2015

What do book lovers have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights-out? We asked a couple of them, and here’s what they said.

Bedtime Stories: Sept. 2015

Tom Gjelten:

I tend to drift off pretty quickly, so the books next to my bed stack up. I have to admit that the one on top right now is my own new book, A Nation of Nations — not because I’m enamored of my own writing, but because I’m supposed to be publicizing it and need to remember what it was I had to say.

More important are these:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. Having written a nonfiction book about the immigration experience, I´m fascinated by the rich stories that only immigrants themselves can tell, and this book captivates me. Junot Díaz writes with such power and vibrancy that it will make you shake.

What Paul Meant by Garry Wills. On my more reflective nights, I turn to books like these. I´m fascinated by the figure of Paul, the evangelist most responsible for turning Jesus’ teachings into the religion of Christianity. Contemporary thinkers have strong feelings about him, to put it mildly. George Bernard Shaw said “it would have been better for the world if Paul had never been born.” There are few such superhuman figures in all history, and I read whatever I can about him.

Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time by Karen Armstrong. In my career as a correspondent for NPR News, I’ve mostly covered international affairs and national security. I’ve recently turned my attention to issues of religion and belief, finding this path the most enlightening as I continue to try to sort out our world. Karen Armstrong is wonderfully easy to read, and I have so much to learn about Islam.

Unbound by Richard L. Currier. As an undergraduate in anthropology at the University of Minnesota, I fell under the influence of this creative young intellectual. In a short book, Currier simplifies human history by focusing on how the world was transformed by eight technologies, from the development of spears to the use of clothing and the invention of clocks. I read it and fall asleep a little wiser.

Tom Gjelten’s latest book is A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story. He is also the author of Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba and Sarajevo Daily: A City and Its Newspaper Under Siege. His books have grown out of his reporting for over 30 years as an NPR correspondent. Follow him on Twitter at @tgjelten.

Barton Swaim:

I read slowly. It’s a lifelong debilitation I’ve long since given up trying to change. When I was a boy, my father sent me to a reading coach. It didn’t work at all.

One of the many consequences of reading slowly is that you tire of the book you’re reading. My way of dealing with that problem — other than refusing to read anything longer than 600 pages unless there’s an overwhelmingly good reason to — is to hack away at several books at the same time. My office and desk are consequently laden with books I’m in the process of reading. A few of them I’m reading now; others I will get through in due course. Really, I will.

Love and Friendship by Allan Bloom. Bloom reflects on the meaning of love in Jane Austen, Rousseau, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and especially Shakespeare. Bloom’s stately, warm prose carries you along even when you’re not sure you want to go — he thought a lot more of Rousseau than I do. Bloom is at his best on Shakespeare, which takes up the bulk of the book. His analysis is a wonderful corrective to the ways in which love has come to have exclusively sexual meanings in modern western culture. (Weirdly, he doesn’t deal with Shakespeare’s sonnets at all.) It’s a fat book. I’m nearly through it.

The Essays of Joseph Addison. I bought this little volume in Edinburgh in 2002, after I read somewhere about the importance of Addison’s style. My edition is from Macmillan’s old Golden Treasury series of the 1920s. Together with Richard Steele, Addison (1672-1719) founded the Spectator and the Guardian. In those papers, he originated and perfected the essay form — learned but not florid or pompous, clear, direct, and always taking you from A to B in some memorable way. I read an essay or two from time to time just to be reminded of how it’s done. Here’s the opening of “The Political Upholsterer”: “There lived some years since within my neighborhood a very grave person, an upholsterer, who seemed a man of more than ordinary application to business. He was a very early riser, and was often abroad two or three hours before any of his neighbours. He had a particular carefulness in the knitting of his brows, and a kind of impatience in all his motions, that plainly discovered he was always intent on matters of importance.” How are you not going to read on?

Tennyson (second edition) by Christopher Ricks. I read Ricks’ famous study as a graduate student in the late 1990s, but I don’t think I understood more than a little of it, so I started it again a few weeks ago. I did learn one thing, though, even the first time around. Literary critics are always pairing Tennyson with Browning, and Tennyson, a more direct and less studied and “difficult” poet, always wins the literary-critical competition. But Tennyson is a far more sophisticated poet than he’s usually given credit for. He can do magical things with even a tired subject — mortality, for instance — as Ricks shows again and again.

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world.

As Ricks points out, the first four lines are gentle and almost soporific. Then in lines five and six: inversion and enjambment, and the first adjective, “cruel.” They are the opening lines of “Tithonus,” a poem written in Tennyson’s 20s.

A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History by William J. Bouwsma. Several years ago, I read Bouwsma’s highly regarded intellectual biography of John Calvin, the 16th-century reformer, and I was moved by it. In that book, Bouwsma (1923-2004) captured the sheer breadth and depth of this great mind and ferociously determined personality — all while putting to rest the many misconceptions of who he was and what he did and believed. So moved by the book was I, in fact, that I wrote to his widow, Beverly, who lived in Berkeley, where William taught for many years. She replied with a very kind letter and sent a copy of William’s last book, a collection of essays published by the University of California Press in 1990. I’m still making my way through it — there is a terrific essay on secularization in early modern Europe, and another on the meanings of humanism. My copy is signed by Beverly. She died earlier this year.

Journalist and author Barton Swaim writes for the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. His latest book, The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics, recounts his time spent penning prose for former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford. Follow him on Twitter at @bartonswaim.

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