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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · July 11, 2019

How to Pick Your Next Great Read: Summer 2019 Edition

16 min read

By Nadine Zimmerli

Two years ago, I polled my colleagues at the OI about their summer reading habits and gathered book recommendations. In the wake of that blog post, I raced to pick up Kathy Burdette’s suggestion, David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog, and have found myself recommending it ever since. I even sent a paperback copy to a friend in Germany![1] Turns out my fellow OI editors have great taste in reading material, so this summer, I asked my colleagues in Team Books to share how they pick their leisure reading.

In Team Books, June and July are among the busiest months of the year. We returned from the OI annual conference in Pittsburgh in mid-June, are gearing up for exhibiting at SHEAR in Cambridge, and are currently preparing to launch our Spring 2020 books with our partners at the University of North Carolina Press in Chapel Hill as well as participating in the Scholars’ Workshop. That’s on top of reading proposals, providing conceptual feedback to current authors, checking sources, copyediting, and reading proofs of manuscripts poised to come out soon. Nonetheless, we all read vociferously in our spare time even after spending most of our days absorbing ideas and refining prose. Love of the written word is kind of a prerequisite for choosing a job in book publishing, isn’t it?

That said, while Team Books is united in our commitment to publishing excellent #VastEarlyAmerica books, our preferences for pleasure reading vary wildly. I’m currently rediscovering my East German roots by reading Christa Wolf’s 1983 novel Kassandra (think Madeline Miller’s Circe—which I loved!—in terms of a feminist allegory but without the happy ending) after devouring Andreas Schmidt-Schaller’s memoir Klare Ansage (an actor’s tale about coming up on the East German stage, tangling with the Stasi, and starting over after unification). After reading predominantly history, pop science, and linguistic books for a good decade, I’ve rediscovered the joys of reading fiction, with the occasional memoir mixed in. Our managing editor Ginny Chew is moving in the opposite direction; she always has a novel on hand to unwind after a long day (currently this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Overstory, which reminds her of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins), but she now hopes to add scienc-y nonfiction books to her rotation. Ginny is not a big fan of memoirs, though, so we’ll never queue up for the same book at the library! Novels are her first and forever love, because they open up worlds of words and resonate in deeper ways than other forms of entertainment. Ginny finds the latest gems by trusting her friends’ recommendations and perusing the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker, but she confided in me that she’s at times taken in more by the ads in these publications than the reviews. She then looks up any book that piqued her curiosity, most recently an ad for Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book that ran in the New Yorker. This book strikes her as a potentially perfect summer read.

Cathy Kelly, our Editor of Books, shares Ginny’s love of novels and exclusively reads fiction—preferably by women writers—in her less-than-copious spare time. Like Ginny, Cathy deeply appreciates good prose and in her own writing tries to emulate the emotional register that fiction writers model so well. Reading novels, to her, can keep historians attuned to the affective dimensions of their work, make them mindful of narrative arcs, and help them decide when to foreground or pull back specific characters’ voices. In fact, she encourages all historians to read more fiction to improve their own use of language, and Cathy can usually tell whether a manuscript’s author is a fellow novel enthusiast. She recommends Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones as a great example of “wrenchingly beautiful” prose and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage for an author’s handling of voice. To find her next novel, Cathy relies on airport bookstore displays. Always on the go to conferences, she reads OI manuscripts on the inbound flight but buys a novel for her return trip, as a reward. I love that concept! Her tip: connect through ATL or fly out of PDX to find stores with great selections.[2]

Kathy Burdette, our senior project editor, shares Cathy’s sentiment that consuming good writing positively influences her daily work and also likes stumbling upon her next read in a physical space. For Kathy, though, this space is William & Mary’s Swem Library, our upstairs neighbor.  She’s a big believer in the serendipity of discovery, and for that, you need to have access to physical books that you can pick up, leaf through, get lost in. Upstairs, Kathy recently discovered a self-help guide from the 1930s that proved surprisingly relevant to our times, and it’s where she also found Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy, which she loved. Kathy reads widely in the fantasy realm and is currently touching base with the Arthurian myths by re-reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. She does also appreciate educational nonfiction titles and highly recommends Matt Richtel’s An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System. I agree with Kathy that it covers a topic in whose inner workings we should all take an interest!

Manuscript Editor Kaylan Stevenson’s method for finding great books is a little less orthodox and reminiscent of recent OI post-doc Carolyn Arena, who only reads non-academic books literally handed or mailed to her. Likewise, Kaylan recently received an armload of books from a friend who is in the process of moving, and she’s now making her way through the pile. In it, she discovered Heros Von Borke’s memoirs and became engrossed in this Prussian cavalry officer’s tale of the Civil War.[3] An avid equestrian, Kaylan loves to read about horses, dressage, and military history, and this memoir ticked two of three boxes. She also just completed Elizabeth Letts’ The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis, which covers all three interests. Although Kaylan doesn’t have a summer reading list, she will use the warmer months to re-institute her Shakespeare reading parties. She inaugurated this event a couple of years ago, and it’s now back by popular demand. Six to eight friends of hers participate, and they will soon vote on the plays they’ll read out at the gatherings. (Kaylan’s casting her vote for As You Like It.)

Much like Kaylan, our Editorial Assistant Daniella Bassi appreciates the classics from previous centuries. She’s the only one of us who has a specific summer reading list, and she’s grateful for the time she has now, post-grad school, to expand her interests and delve into unfamiliar yet intriguing subjects. Her list includes everything from early American captivity narratives and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie to Lysander Spooner’s No Treason essays and Ayn Rand’s We the Living. Daniella is deeply curious about the manifold ways people lived in the past and the answers political philosophers gave to the age-old questions of how to organize society and how people should live. She sees this summer as an opportunity to familiarize herself with classic treatises to absorb the answers intellectuals from various time periods and continents provided to these questions so as to make up her own mind. Already, her reading has clarified for her that she would like to start her own business so she can own her time.

More time is something that Holly White, assistant editor of digital projects and OI publications, would surely appreciate as well, since she’s not only a key member of Team Books but also Team Quarterly and Team Ben Franklin’s World in addition to raising two adorable little boys. As a result, she toggles between narrating children’s books for her sons and absorbing early American history monographs for work (and for pleasure). Her current favorite in the latter category is Sarah Knott’s Mother Is a Verb (which Holly appreciates for its insights on personal experiences shaping academic research) while The Three Little Pigs: An Architectural Tale is in heavy rotation at home. By now, Holly has read this version of the tale, which celebrates Frank Gehry, Phillip Johnson, and Frank Lloyd Wright, at least a hundred times (and has now resorted to hiding it from her youngest). Her children and her work influence how Holly selects books, too: she reads early American monographs to prep for upcoming episodes of the BFW podcast, and her sons pick out their favorites and bring them to Holly to read aloud.

So there you have it—here are Team Books’ collective recommendations for finding your next summer read:

  1. If you have a toddler on hand, have her or him bring you a book to read.
  2. In lieu of toddler, accept books from friends.
  3. In lieu of toddler or friends, peruse the shelves of your local library or closest airport bookstore.
  4. If not near either, scrutinize the book ads (but eschew actual book reviews) in a publication to which you subscribe.
  5. If all this fails, interview your colleagues for a summer reading blog post and immediately check out all the titles they mentioned.

Team Books 2019 Summer Reading Recommendations

(in addition to all titles mentioned above)

Daniella Bassi (Editorial Assistant for Publications)

Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey

Kathy Burdette (Senior Project Editor)

Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood

Ginny Chew (Managing Editor)

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

 Cathy Kelly (Editor of Books)

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room

 Kaylan Stevenson (Manuscript Editor)

Adam Makos, with Larry Alexander, A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II

Holly Stevens White (Assistant Editor, Digital Projects and OI Publications)

for adults: Catherine O’Donnell, Elizabeth Seton, American Saint

for toddlers: Jeff Mack, Hush, Little Polar Bear

Nadine Zimmerli (Associate Editor of Books)

Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles


[1] Incidentally, Ginny did much the same. After reading Sax’s book, she immediately sent it to an old friend in Philadelphia. Kathy really knows how to pick inspiring reads!

[2] As a bonus, Cathy also leaves novels she has finished on the airplane or in airport gate areas for the next curious reader. Connect through Atlanta to see if you can find one on your next trip!

[3] Incidentally, I read this memoir in college and loved the tidbit about Americans calling this Prussian <Von> as a nickname. Made me wonder—did anyone call Alexis de Tocqueville <De>? Early Republic specialists, do you know? Asking for a friend.

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