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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · August 09, 2017

Summer Reading at the Institute

books 17 min read

Today’s post is by Nadine Zimmerli, Associate Editor of Books

When I was in college, I remember wandering into my local bookstore—Four Seasons Books, a gem of a place in Shepherdstown, West Virginia—and asking the owner for a good recommendation for summer reading. She suggested I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. This book was one of the last ones I read purely for pleasure before going to graduate school. Afterward, summer reading took on the meaning of “unstructured time to absorb as many articles and monographs as one can manage.” It took a while before I once again picked up a book to read simply because it intrigued me, not because it would help my research, might come in handy for teaching, or was important to the field of history.

Truth be told, summers are still dominated by reading for work instead of reading for pleasure (not that the two are mutually exclusive!). Even though the Institute is an academic institution located on a college campus, we are not subject to the usual rhythms of academic life, with a bustling nine-month schedule followed by a more tranquil summer period. Proposals and manuscripts flow in and out all year long. Summer actually sees an uptick in activity, since our authors solicit substantive input now that they have the time to work on their own scholarly projects. Time does not stand still for my colleagues in editorial either, who continue to copyedit their current manuscripts or read proofs of forthcoming Fall books. Meanwhile, Team Quarterly—as our colleagues down the hall are affectionately known—just finalized the July issue of the journal. Our annual conference and SHEAR also fall in the summer, as does the Scholars’ Workshop. It’s been a busy few weeks for all of us here!

Nonetheless, I managed to get in some summer reading this year. As a book editor, I find it important to read widely to appreciate the beauty of linguistic expression and to see and to think through how other publishers structure books. I also love reading, just because.

I’m originally from Leipzig, so a mix of curiosity and something like regional pride prompted me to pick up Svante Pääbo’s Neanderthal Man in May, in which he describes decoding the Neanderthal genome at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Since I didn’t have a summer reading list, I began to meander from title to title after finishing Pääbo’s memoir, jumping from Neanderthals to the Romans. I had wanted to read Mary Beard’s S.P.Q.R. for a while, so I did, and followed up this sweeping history with a recommendation from Paul Mapp, our interim editor of Books, who told me about Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. Paul’s tip turned out to be a stellar one—gorgeously written, highly engrossing—so I had the idea to solicit all of my colleagues for input to curate an OI-inspired summer reading list. All of us work for an institution that has produced polished publications for close to seventy-five years, and an appreciation for well-written works unites us. Who better to ask for reading recommendations?

Turns out, the OI staff is composed of book devotees of all different stripes. I received recommendations for all sorts of books, from children’s classics to young adult works, to beach reads, to historical novels, to academic monographs. I learned that some of my colleagues are members of book clubs. Others discover books along with their kids or draw inspiration from the pages of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Carolyn Arena, our incoming postdoctoral fellow, has a particularly unusual selection process—for her next read, she relies solely on physical books given or mailed to her by friends or family.

I got the best tip for classic summer reading from Beverly Smith, the Institute’s manager, who is currently enjoying a variety of beach books on the porch of her newly constructed beach house in the Outer Banks. Talking to Bev, I could almost taste the salt in the air! On the other end of the spectrum, Meg Musselwhite, the Quarterly’s managing editor, got me to consider a completely new genre—young adult dystopian fiction—when she told me about Julianna Baggott’s Pure/Fuse/Burn trilogy about nuclear war survivors who are fused to various physical objects (an intriguing concept!). I received great recommendations for nonfiction, too, such as the evocatively titled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson. Kathy Burdette, my colleague in Team Books, is currently reading this work alongside James Lee McDonough’s biography of General Sherman. (I don’t think Kathy means to make a point by reading them alongside one another, but I’ll double-check on that with her!) There was also some overlap in current reading. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or his Norse Mythology and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch came up a few times, as did Hamilton: The Revolution. I take this as a sign of the Zeitgeist at work.

Zeitgeist aside, I did discover a few general trends. Some of us, like webmaster Kim Foley, love book series. Kim is currently hooked on Jana DeLeon’s mysteries set in the swamps of Louisiana. Postdoctoral fellow Deborah Hamer is also engrossed in a series, S. E. Grove’s Mapmakers trilogy, which blends historical fiction and fantasy. Deborah isn’t the only connoisseur of historical fiction. Our director Karin Wulf is also a big fan, especially of C. J. Sansom’s mysteries set in Tudor England. OI staff appreciate the classics, too. Shawn Holl, our director of development, is catching up on old and new classics, such as Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by reading them alongside her rising fifth-grader. Director of communications Martha Howard is re-reading War and Peace this summer. Nick Popper, the Quarterly’s new book review editor, appreciates Russian literature as well and is reading Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Letter Killers Club. We also all have go-to authors for comfort reading; Oscar Wilde is Carolyn’s choice, while Dorothy Sayers is Karin’s. For Carol Arnette, of Team Quarterly, it’s J. K. Rowling, and Carol owns Harry Potter books in all different languages, from Chinese to Portuguese.

I could go on and fill many pages with the interesting titles my colleagues are reading this summer and with musings about the reading tastes and habits of OI staff in general. Let’s just say that lovers of print books, eBooks, and audiobooks all made their voices heard, and let’s sidestep the “reading a book in a linear fashion” vs. “reading the ending first” debate. (Personally, I consume books in all three media, and yes, I live for spoilers, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.)

One thing I do want to highlight is that we all appear to be in the exact right profession. I tend to gravitate toward books that illuminate something about the past and books on language evolution and usage. Even though my genre choices for pleasure reading of history and linguistics might seem too on the nose (and rather nerdy), I take them as a sign that I’ve chosen the right vocation!

Along similar lines, our digital projects editor Liz Covart enjoys reading books about evolving business practices in the digital age, having just finished Joe Pulizzi’s Content Inc. as well as Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. Books like these on building and expanding an audience using digital products tie directly into her day job as the host of Ben Franklin’s World. Aside from these books, Liz, a fellow historian, also likes historical fiction, and she looks forward to reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad next.

Quite a few OI staff are even reading books about vast early America for fun. Josh Piker, of Team Quarterly, reads microhistories shading into biography in his off-hours, which he says makes him a better writer by observing the ways in which other scholars make the most of their evidence and push for greater significance. He recently finished Jane Kamenky’s A Revolution in Color and Turk McCleskey’s The Road to Black Ned’s Forge. Karin’s summer reading—aside from stacks of foundation reports and newsletters—includes a selection of history monographs and historical fiction, such as James Delbourgo’s Collecting the World and Francis Spufford’s historical novel about New York, Golden Hill (also a book on Deborah’s list). And Kaylan Stevenson, of Team Books, is currently enjoying Michael Kranish’s Flight from Monticello.

All of us deeply appreciate a well-told story and beautiful language. As editors, we take inspiration from prose that expresses ideas precisely, with clarity, yet also with sensitivity and nuance. Nick even reserves reading fiction solely for the summer months since he finds that reading well-crafted sentences elevates his own writing. Ginny Chew, the managing editor for Books, reads fiction both to relax and for exposure to beautiful language to help her hone her editorial interventions. For Ginny, and her fellow copyeditors, however, their job of paying meticulous attention to language can also get in the way of pleasure reading. The copyeditors, both on Team Books and on Team Quarterly, find that bad writing can impinge on their enjoyment of a book and they find themselves inadvertently correcting grammar. I find myself doing the same at times. Engaging with books on a variety of levels is a pitfall of the trade, but it also makes us discerning readers and hopefully better editors!

This is why I’m confident that my discerning colleagues recommended nothing but gems to me, and I look forward to checking out some of the books below (and saving others for later) as we head into the last month of summer:

Joe Adelman (Assistant Editor, Digital Initiatives):
John Eisenberg, The Streak: Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken Jr., and Baseball’s Most Historic Record

Carolyn Arena (Postdoctoral Fellow):
Brandon Stanton, Humans of New York: Stories

Carol Arnette (Assistant Editor, WMQ):
Margot Lee Shatterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Kathy Burdette (Senior Project Editor, Books):
David Sax, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

Ginny Chew (Managing Editor, Books):
Hannah Rothschild, The Improbability of Love

Liz Covart (Digital Projects Editor):
Joe Pulizzi, Content Inc.: How Entrepreneurs Use Content to Build Massive Audiences and Create Radically Successful Businesses

Kelly Crawford (Office Manager of Omohundro Institute Publications):
Munro Leaf (author) and Robert Lawson (illustrator), The Story of Ferdinand

Laurel Daen (Lapidus Initiative Communications Coordinator):
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Kim Foley (Webmaster):
Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness

Deborah Hamer (Postdoctoral Fellow):
Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach

Shawn Holl (Director of Development):
Kwame Alexander, The Crossover

Martha Howard (Director of Conferences and Communications):
Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

Paul Mapp (Interim Editor of Books):
Maurice Leblanc, Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief

Meg Musselwhite (Managing Editor, WMQ):
Adam Rubin (author) and Daniel Salmieri (illustrator), Dragons Love Tacos

Josh Piker (Editor, WMQ):
James Brooks, Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awatovi Massacre

Nick Popper (Book Review Editor, WMQ):
Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely

Beverly Smith (Manager, Institute Administration):
Jenny Hale, Summer by the Sea

Kaylan Stevenson (Manuscript Editor, Books):
Michael Kranish, Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War

Shauna Sweeney (Postdoctoral Fellow):
Marlon James, The Book of Night Women

Karin Wulf (Director):
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriages and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism

And my own pick (since I did get asked about what I’m reading in return):
John McWhorter, Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally)

Thanks to the Randwick City Library, Australia, for the Beach Library image.


[…] 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 […]
How to Pick Your Next Great Read: Summer 2019 Edition - Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture - Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture  •  July 11, 2019
I eat up books on CD all year long and Neil Gaiman's American Gods might have lost me an office job. I was laughing so hard while working on numbers in Excel worksheets that they probably assumed I was having entirely too much fun at that straight-laced buying office job.
Michelle Mormul  •  August 09, 2017

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