A Fall Break Reading List
I haven't published a reading list in ages, but I have been doing plenty of reading nonetheless.
I am on Fall Break this week. This might be obvious to regular readers of my blog since I have written two essays back to back for the first time since the summer. I'm also doing a good bit of reading, which I will likely address in a future reading list. For now, though, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on some of the reading I have been doing lately. The books here follow no particular theme, and not every book will be for every reader. There's a mix of scholarly and creative, higher education and history, novels and nonfiction. If you could see my brain diagrammed out on paper, it might look something like this reading list. The books that follow are in no particular order, just like my mind.
Is Everyone Really Equal: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, by Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo. While this book is designed for students in classrooms centered around critical social justice theory, it is useful for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of social justice. Particularly in the current political climate, it offers important insights into the ways unseen forces continue to shape our culture and our politics. If you are a progressive frustrated by the lack of traction in your conversations with conservatives, this book will help explain the key concepts that the political right chooses to reject in order to undermine arguments centered on social justice. If you are a conservative, you should read this book even if you don't like the authors' conclusions and even if you ultimately reject them.
So often, important arguments about social justice are brushed off as complaints and opinions from snowflakes. However, to dismiss arguments about social justice out of hand simply because they do not fit one's worldview is not conducive to fruitful political debate. Until we are able to meet one another halfway and seriously consider each others' arguments, we will never escape this vicious cycle of partisan bickering. So often, I see people on social media dismiss others as "snowflake social justice warriors" based only on what they hear on Fox News. This book takes an academic approach to dismantling the misinformed nonsense spewed by Sean Hannity and others. If you are conservative and only read one book this year that doesn't come from a writer of your political persuasion, let this be it. If you are a liberal who reads only one scholarly book this year, likewise, let this be it.
The Line That Held Us, by David Joy. My reviews of David's work often border on hagiography, and my comments about this book will be no exception. Here comes a bold statement: This is my favorite book. Period. There are a number of reasons for that. It is set in my home county. The places in the book are familiar to me. More importantly, David's characters are the most genuine in all of Appalachian literature. His work elicits a sort of empathy for broken people that I have never experienced in anything else I have ever read. It is that empathy, not sympathy, that I believe to be essential to understanding this region and our people. Even absent the comfort of familiarity in the book's setting, this novel is still brilliant, and it is a page-turner. I couldn't put it down, and I don't think you'll be able to, either. As I often say when talking about David's work, if you want to understand where I come from, not just geographically but emotionally, read this book. He writes about "my" people, and he does so in a way in a way that recognizes and honors their humanity in a way most of the rest of the world doesn't.
Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy, by William Bergquist and Kenneth Pawlak. This book is not for everyone, but if you work in higher education, it should be mandatory reading. I read it over the summer in a doctoral-level Academic Cultures seminar. It continues to shape the way I interpret and understand the higher education landscape around me. Sometimes I think I should have been a sociologist rather than an historian, and this book really engaged the part of my brain that leans that way. Understanding Bergquist and Pawlak's analysis of culture in higher education makes me a better teacher, a better administrator, and a better learner.
Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism, by Bartow Elmore. This book combines a number of my favorite things to study: capitalism, global history, commodities, consumerism, and the American South. Elmore describes the ways Coca-Cola built a global empire while simultaneously becoming one of the largest purchasers of commodities in world history. Elmore describes how Coke has caused catastrophic shifts in ecologies, especially in already-fragile places. I'm planning to assign this for the History of Capitalism course I am prepping. It is a compelling story, a great read, and an important critique of capitalism.
The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke, by Andrew Lawler. The history of Colonial America has never been one of my favorite parts of history. In graduate school, I read just enough about it to pass comprehensive exams and teach the first half of the US survey course. However, I really enjoyed this book. Most of us who have an interest in history have seen a documentary or two about the Lost Colony, and so much of what we have seen and read about these settlers is either speculation or garbage or speculative garbage. Lawler, however, offers a compelling account that is history and narrative and archaeology. It's a great read, and Lawler does an effective job piecing together a search for truth about what has long been regarded as a mystery. I first became aware of the book because a friend works as Lawler's publicist. I'm incredibly glad she got a copy of the book into my hands, because it's worth a read. It helped me reconnect with a portion of American history that I haven't always loved, and if you actually love this piece of history, you'll like the book even more than I did, which is a lot.
The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, by Ian Mortimer. I am currently teaching this book, and it is a delight. Mortimer is an academic historian, though the book does not, at least on its surface, appear to be academic in nature. The premise is exactly what you'd expect from the title. Suppose you found yourself plunked down in London in 1320. Mortimer's book describes what you would see, smell, and taste. He describes how those around you would dress and worship, and how society would be structured. All of this comes in present-tense format. Students find it accessible because, to the extent possible, it places them IN history as an insider experiencing it firsthand rather than as an outsider experiencing it from afar in time and in place. I like Mortimer's approach because it lessens our tendency to interpret distant history through the lens of our own experiences. It helps readers confront history as it was rather than as we hoped it might be or as we know it became. It isn't something I would assign to an upper-level class, but it works really well for my first-year students. This book would be particularly great for those who are fans of Game of Thrones. It's a fun and easy read, and well worth the eleven bucks you'll spend on it.
Gray Mountain, and Rooster Bar, both by John Grisham. I'm going to take some grief for recommending popular fiction. I know, I know. However, I have come to realize that I am sometimes elitist in my appreciation of literature. Given my outright hatred of elitism, I'm a hypocrite for shunning trade fiction. This is my attempt to fix that. I read both of these in August, and I loved both. First: A confession. Long before I was an English literature minor in college, I was a John Grisham fan. In fact, Grisham's fiction was my gateway drug, literarily speaking. After high school, I wasn't much of a reader until I picked up Grisham's novel The Street Lawyer. I was hooked. I read every one of Grisham's novels before picking up Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. From there, I discovered Steinbeck, and I was hooked on reading. Without Grisham, I'm not sure I would have become such an avid reader, and I'm certain that without having become a reader, I would have never chosen to study literature when I went to college at age 31. In short, without Grisham, I would never have discovered Faulkner.
As for these two novels, both are easy and quick reads, and both tell interesting stories in Grisham's typical page-turning style. Gray Mountain is set in Appalachia, and for that reason, I almost refused to read it. I was skeptical of Grisham's ability to write Appalachia, but he does a reasonable job without overly pushing tired and inaccurate stereotypes. He offers a great, albeit fictional, analysis of the problematic nature of coal in Appalachia. Rooster Bar is a fun read, but also offers an important critique of for-profit degree mills in the context of the current student debt crisis. As is typical for Grisham's work, both tackle important social problems without being overly political. I highly recommend both.
I spend a good bit of my time reading hard books, some of which, frankly, I don't really want to read. However, when one is an academic, particularly in higher education, one must often read overly theoretical works that feel more like a mental workout than like reading. At the end of the summer, just before the start of the new academic year, Grisham was my respite from this. These novels were the mental vacation I needed. Either would be a great Fall Break read.
Legendary Hunters of the Southern Highlands: A Century of Sport and Survival in the Great Smoky Mountains, by Bob Plott. I have known OF Bob for quite some time. I became more familiar with his writing when I was working on a research project about Horace Kephart a few years ago. I finally had a chance to meet him in person a few weeks ago when I attended a talk he gave near the campus where I teach. Bob is a delightful human, a master storyteller, and a fine historian. When I cracked open Legendary Hunters, I was hooked right away. I love reading about these mountains that have fostered generations of my family, though I'm not always into local histories because they tend to be less critical than other forms of history. Bob, however, gets it right. Hunting with hounds has been a cornerstone of my family for generations. Reading Bob's books, I think back to fond memories of fox hunting with my papaw when I was a kid. This book was, for me, nostalgia in paper form. I'm planning to assign it next time I teach Appalachian Studies, and I think you'll really enjoy it, particularly if you love these old mountains the way Bob and I do. When you finish this one, look for his other titles.
I'm currently reading: The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism, by Joyce Appleby, and Drew Swanson's new book Beyond the Mountains: Commodifying Appalachian Environments. If either, or both, are worth recommending, I'm certian I'll write about them in a future reading list. As always, keep sending me your recommendations. I have stumbled upon some wonderful books because of reader recommendations.
A note about the Amazon Associate links in this reading list: It is no particular secret that I have been monetizing This Appalachia Life via the Amazon Associates program. Given this decision, I think it is important to take a moment to articulate what this does and doesn't mean. First and foremost, this does not mean that I condone or endorse every corporate decision that Amazon makes. It does not mean that I do not recognize the shifts in the bookselling marketplace caused by Amazon's continually-increasing market share. Most importantly, it does not mean that I do not love local bookstores. What it does mean is that the Amazon Associates program offers a platform through which I can monetize this website in order to continue offering content to readers. For almost a year now, Amazon Associates has been generating enough revenue to fully fund this website. Without that revenue, it likely wouldn't be possible to continue running This Appalachia Life. This website is, for me, not just a hobby, but an extension of my work as an historian and a writer. It isn't the way I make a living, and though I don't expect to make a lot from the time I invest, I do need to pay for hosting and such.
In the time leading up to my decision to monetize the website via Amazon Associates, I tried other methods. I tried Google Adsense, but found it to be an inconsistent and unreliable way to monetize the website. Similarly, I attempted to recommend books via IndieBound, a consortium of independent booksellers. Thousands of clicks later, I have yet to meet the threshold to receive a payment from them. However, because so many people already order regularly from Amazon, it is easy and straightforward for my readers to buy the books I recommend via Amazon. It was not until I became a member of the Amazon Associates program that this website began to break even. We have a baby on the way, and my wife and I both work in higher education. It is nice to be able to support This Appalachia Life without dipping into our household budget.
It is no secret that I am a loyal customer of Amazon. We live in rural western North Carolina. The closest Trader Joe's is over an hour away, as is the nearest Target. Our choices for most products are limited in our community. We choose to order many things from Amazon rather than buy them at Walmart, a corporation whose business practices and philosophy I despise. With Amazon Prime, people in rural communities have easy access to millions of products. On a very pragmatic level, this is also a way to open up book ownership to more people. When you click on one of the links above, you are taken to a page where you can order the book from Amazon, and most readers of this blog are already Amazon accountholders. I rarely recommend a book that isn't Prime-eligible, and the Amazon prices are often a fraction of local booksellers. Again, this doesn't mean that I don't love local bookstores. It is simply a recognition of the economics of shopping at Amazon.
The short of it is this: If you hate Amazon, I understand, but similarly, I hope you will understand that my monetization of this website via Amazon Associates is not something I do lightly or without a great amount of though. If you aren't an Amazon customer, or even if you are, please consider buying the books I recommend via local booksellers. It isn't a binary. I can simultaneously love my local bookseller and still do business with Amazon.