Do you have a guilty pleasure book?
When I am feeling stressed or particularly anxious, for the last several years I have dipped into the memoirs of lower-class British citizens, especially women, from the death of Queen Victoria to the end of the Second World War. I have perused books such as Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor by Rosina Harrison, Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir by Margaret Powell, Four Meals for Fourpence: A Heartwarming Tale of Family Life in London’s Old East End by Grace Foakes, or Blue above the Chimneys: The Wild Childhood of a Glasgow Tenement Urchin by Christine Marion Fraser. As a historian, I view these memories of young adulthood or childhood as verging on fiction, but I enjoy reading them anyway.
What is your favorite genre? Which do you avoid?
My favorite genre, not surprising, is US History. I read extensively in all areas of US History, and I branch out into World History too. My yearly book list (yes, I keep track of all of the books I read to completion in a given year) is divided into History, Non-Fiction, and Fiction.
I tend to avoid romance novels, graphic novels, suspense and horror books, and instructional manuals (Idiots Guide to Pruning Shears or Petit Fours or whatever). What is the point to them? If I want to read horror, I pick up a history book about slavery or the Holocaust. Instructional manuals? Isn’t that what YouTube is for? Graphic novels? I’m not twelve (and even then, I didn’t read them) and I don’t believe in superheroes. Romance novels? We all know what they really want to read.
What is a book that you’re afraid to read?
I want to read but am afraid to read anything about climate change. It’s real, it’s happening, and I wonder just how much if anything we can do to change it at this time. I particularly avoid anything dealing with the great mass extinction event that we are creating.
I did finishThe Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go From Here by Hope Jahren this year, so I guess there is hope for me there. Pun intended.
What is a book you dislike/hate that everyone loves? Do you remember the last time you put down a book without finishing?
I forced myself to finish All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I kept expecting it to get better but I found it tedious and long-winded. The man badly needed an editor. Oddly enough, I enjoyed his book Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, which he wrote about writing the novel. Maybe the constraints of four seasons required him to sharpen his skills. I gave up on Where the Crawdads Sing after hearing so much about it for so long. What were people thinking there?
I start many books and put them down without finishing. There are too many great books in the world I want to read for me to become bogged down in some tome full of dreck. I am not in graduate school anymore so no one can force me to finish a book these days.
I probably start one book for every book I complete. If the author has not grabbed me by page ten, there is a very good chance I will never make it to page eleven. This applies across genres, including US History. Just because I “should” read a book does not mean I will read the book. Looking at you David McCullough and Michael Beschloss.
What book is currently sitting on your nightstand?
Just one book? Who does that? I generally have a stack I am trying to read and a bookcase (not shelf) full of unread books from which to choose. Plus, I check books out of the library with great abandon. I have thirteen books currently on hold for me at the library today, plus the eight I have already checked out.
What’s the last great book you read? The last book you recommended to everyone you know?
I have recommended many books (as opposed to assigned in class) to people.
Are there any classic novels you read recently for the first time?
I read The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson finally. I enjoyed the book very much and see how it is important to understanding complex conditions for white middle class families the 1950s. It was not the treacly tome I feared.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, what, where, how).
I guess sitting in a comfortable chair, with good lighting, several dogs strewn about my lap, and a beverage nearby. But, really, I can read anywhere and anytime. Oil change places. Airplanes. Starbucks. The mall. Back when people went to the mall. Except in front of the television. I never learned and still cannot do that.
Do you have a favorite book no one else has heard of?
It’s long but Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth Fenn is one of those books I picked up without much enthusiasm and became captivated by the history of this ordinary Plains Indian nation.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
History as a discipline is not known for yucks-a-plenty. I would have to say then that Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez caused more than a casual guffaw.
What’s the most interesting thing that you learned from a book recently?
I’ve been promoting Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City by A.K. Sandoval-Strausz to better understand immigration and urban studies. Immigrants help cities economically, politically, culturally, and socially, as this book shows using Dallas (there are reasons) and Chicago as his examples.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
Yes. There is room for both of them in my reading. Of course, I tend to prefer to emphasize the intellectual for history, but, then again, good history also plays to emotions.
What book might people be surprised to find on your bookshelf?
I have an entire shelf full of books on theology and spirituality. I have Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz Weber, and Elaine Pagels prominently there.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you the most?
I read the entire offerings of Agatha Christi before I learned how to drive. I occasionally dip into one of her works when I am on vacation just for a quick peek.
Have your reading tastes changed over time?
When I was young and callow, I read extensively in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Then I reached a point where I preferred reality to fantasy. I used to love mystery novels, but now I find most of them formulaic and tedious. Frankly, I struggle with fiction reading at all, since so much of fiction I dislike. Now, history has always been a constant. I have loved reading history since I was a teenager. Go figure.
What book would you most like to see turned into a movie or TV series that hasn’t already been adapted?
Funnily enough, I do not watch television or movie adaptations of books. I generally read the book instead. This worked for Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Maybe it’s just Neil Gaiman then.
No, that’s not true. I recommended Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder to all and sundry before Frances McDormand made it her own.
What’s the last book you read that made you cry?
Both Let the People See: The Story of Emmett Till by Elliott Gorn and The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy Tyson were horrifyingly sad and fury inducing.
Also Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction by David Enrich shows the duplicity and greed of investment bankers. I thought after reading The Big Short (another movie I did not see) I would not be shocked. I was wrong.
Where do you find your books? Where do you look when you’re searching for your next great read?
I get my books from a variety of sources. I volunteer for Cypress Assistance Ministries, and I oversee the book area. This means I handle many, many, many books, and I purchase the ones that I think I might read. I gain a lot of my fiction and popular non-fiction books in this way, such as Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, Too Much and Never Enough, by Mary Trump, and Real American: A Memoir by Julie Lythcott-Haimes.
I also check out books from the library and rejoiced when Interlibrary Loan Services were restored. I save myself much money in this way, and I can access the most popular history books and novels for no money. (This endorsement is unpaid.)
Finally, I purchase books new, often from online retailers, if I really want it and cannot wait. I also obtain books at national conferences. When I attend a history conference, I bring a separate carry-on bag just for the books I receive for discounted prices. I usually come back with upwards of twenty new books for me to read and share with my history buddies. I have been known to open my checked bag and remove books to meet weight restrictions for the airlines.
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