“What is one book all students should read in their lifetime?”
The Maroon interviewed nine professors across a range of departments to see how they would take on this difficult question. Here are their responses:
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Anne Carson’s inimitable Autobiography of Red has shaped and reshaped my imagination over the last decade. It continues to change and widen the ways my students and I read and write. I will always teach it, because it’s so many things at once: a novel; a poem; a series of brilliant, strange essays on mythology and parts of speech; and, in a deep sense, an autobiography not only of its author but also of artists and art. Anne Carson asks questions about truth, about work, and about how we record and make meaning of our lives. Her ways of asking are uniquely lyrical and daring enough that they offer up liberating answers for readers and writers.
—Rachel DeWoskin, Committee on Creative Writing
Tao Te Ching by Laozi
We live in a curious time when it has been suddenly realized that our world is (very) finite and the pyramid scheme of modern civilization is hitting its limits. The power of science greatly accelerated the rush to disaster. One might suspect that knowledge devoid of wisdom is not that adequate for understanding reality. Laozi’s book offers a refreshing perspective deliciously complementary to the scientific one. It is a medicine to recover the ability to see the world with one’s own eyes.
—Alexander A. Beilinson, Department of Mathematics
The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities took over 20 years to write. Set in Vienna in 1913, the industrial revolution was catching on and commodification was everywhere. There are over 20 characters in the novel, but one of the protagonists, Ulrich, has a kind of analytical passivity. He falls into a hole around which many academics hover—where knowing something consists only in analyzing it. Do we think that experience should be reduced to abstract knowledge alone? Doesn’t the life of the mind need to be embodied? This work is as relevant today as it was when it first appeared.
—Diane Brentari, Department of Linguistics
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, published in book form in 1878, is as mysteriously lifelike as life itself. Narrated in hyperrealistic detail, it keeps expanding horizons, keeping foreground and deep background in view. Superficially, it seems a romance, the story of Anna and Vronsky’s adulterous love in the unforgiving social setting of aristocratic 19th century Russia. But in the story of Levin and Kitty, it unfolds into a story about agriculture, economy, the fertility of human beings and the land, the relation of labor to wealth, and the search for a spiritually honest life. The characters’ inner lives change as we turn the pages.
—Rosanna Warren, The Committee on Social Thought
Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler
How often I re-read a book measures its importance to me. Eric Ambler, a writer of spy thrillers and one of his books, Journey into Fear, meets this test. The locale is Fascist Italy around 1936. Because the leading Republican candidate Donald Trump is an ignorant but very dangerous version of Benito Mussolini, Ambler’s book is a painless and accurate way to learn about the dangers of this candidate to a republic. I hope University of Chicago students have heard of Il Duce. Benjamin Franklin said at the end of the constitutional convention, “It is a Republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
—Lester Telser, Department of Economics
Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky
Though we are often awed by the power of large formal organizations such as companies or governments, the 21st century reality is that individuals or informal organizations can be much more powerful forces for change when information and social networking technology are used to understand, inspire, and organize. As Shirky writes, “Revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technology, it happens when society adopts new behaviors.” I hope that this book will inspire and empower students to see how they can be even more effective drivers for societal change—all for the good, of course!
—Andrew A. Chien, Department of Computer Science
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
I’d encourage every student to read Hamlet several times in their lifetime. What Shakespeare embodies in the character of Hamlet, so intensely and tragically, is that most human of all dilemmas: how can one act on anything—morally, emotionally, philosophically—when nothing is certain? Ambiguity pervades the play, whether it’s Hamlet’s sanity, or his love for Ophelia, or his constant confrontations with death. In his fear and indecision, manifested in nearly every aspect of the play, we see how our mortality shapes our humanity. It’s frightening to witness, and yet also exhilarating to have someone articulate and dramatize—with such beauty—the complex psychology behind our deepest fears.
—Vu Tran, Committee on Creative Writing
History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
I came to this text late. After the start of the second Iraq War (the one we’re in now), an author I admire said it was time to re-read Thucydides... Hmm, ‘re-read?’ I thought. So I got to work. It is heart-breaking, first and foremost, but also amazing for the logistics, ruthlessness, and relentlessness, both military and political—especially in the context of the stunning sculpture surviving from then, which have reached across millennia. Thucydides reminds us that Homo sapiens, whether in the Bronze Age or now, are never to be underestimated.
—Susan Kidwell, Department of Geophysical Sciences
Mythologies by Roland Barthes
Barthes is both one of the greatest critics and one of the most beautiful writers of the 20th century. In this book, he focuses his critical eye on aspects and events of daily life that often go unexamined, even though they may express and sustain powerful ideological messages and values. Among the many topics addressed are boxing, Italian “peplum” films, the face of Garbo, the Tour de France, striptease, stock photos, Einstein’s brain, and best of all, Martians. Barthes’s writing remains one of the most wonderful examples of how a brilliant critical mind can still appeal to a broad readership.
—D. N. Rodowick, Department of Cinema and Media Studies, and Visual Arts