Summer Reads 2021

Tuesday, Jul 6, 2021
by Jamie Saxon, Office of Communications

Six Princeton professors talk about how the books on their shelves relate to their work and share what’s on their summer reading lists. Some book choices reflect their scholarly research and teaching. Others illuminate personal interests and current issues in the headlines. And with a hat tip to the quarantine-induced popularity of audiobooks and podcasts during the pandemic, they include audio selections as well.

Paul Nadal

Tell us about a particular book on your shelf.

The Filipino Rebel (1930) by Maximo M. Kalaw is an exquisite literary artifact. One of the first novels in English written by a Filipino, it restages the independence debates of the 1920s, allegorizing the rise of anti-colonial resistance against the background of the transfer of colonial power from Spain to the United States. Kalaw’s novel, subtitled “A Romance of American Occupation in the Philippines,” is, unfortunately, not easy to get hold of — I could track down only two physical copies of the first edition, one at Cornell University, the other at the British Library. The good people of Princeton Library’s Interlibrary Loan office helped to procure one of them on my behalf.

I am completing a draft of my first book, which uses an economic phenomenon, “remittances” — the money that migrants send home — as a framework to trace the transpacific itineraries of 20th-century Philippine literature. Kalaw’s novel seems to me a paradigmatic example of “remittance fiction” in that it is an imaginative work borne out not only by migration — the author, under a colonial scholarship program, earned bachelor’s degrees from the University of Washington and Georgetown University and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan — but also by a certain interdisciplinarity avant la lettre. Kalaw was first and foremost a political scientist, but he turned to novel writing to pry apart his moment’s political vocabularies — “education,” “revolution,” “government,” “freedom” — in a way that he could not with political treatises (and indeed he wrote many). It’s impossible for me to read this political novel without the author’s American training in mind, and I am fascinated by Kalaw’s place on the threshold between Philippine and American literature.

What’s on your summer reading/listening list?

During the summer I continue to read work related to finance, colonialism and the global novel; I also gravitate to the wily, the mercurial, the passionate, the essayistic. Some favorites this summer are:

  • Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History by Ian Baucom
  • Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said by Timothy Brennan
  • We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice by Mariame Kaba
  • Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization by Achille Mbembe
  • The Committed: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross
  • Horizontal Vertigo: A City Called Mexico by Juan Villoro

I am learning Spanish, so also on my summer list are Jose Rizal’s two novels, Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo. Rizal is a giant of Philippine literature, and I have read those novels many times in English — but it gives me a new type of pleasure to make my way through them in the original Spanish.

On my long afternoon walks with Goji, my rambunctious three-year old French bulldog, I listen to Novel Dialogue, a new podcast which pairs a novelist with a critic “about how novels are made — and what to make of them.”

Judith Weisenfeld

Tell us about a particular book on your shelf.

I have a well-worn copy of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower on my shelf that was the final book I read with students this past spring semester in my undergraduate seminar on “Race and Religion in America.” Butler’s 1993 novel is set in America in the 2020s in the context of environmental degradation, disease, the destructive social consequences of corporate greed and wealth inequality, rising nationalism and Christian fundamentalism, and government disinterest in meeting the basic needs of most residents. Lauren Oya Olamina, the main character, is a Black teenager who brings a religious message — “God is Change” — that offers the people around her different ways of thinking about the basis of community and the obligations we have to one another in times that generate heightened instincts for self-preservation as well as alternative imaginings of the human future and the future of human societies. I have included the book on the syllabus for this course for many years but found the discussion with students in the context of the pandemic to be especially rich as they entered into the world Butler presents to think more generally about race, religion, politics, community and possibility.

What’s on your summer reading/listening list?

My summer reading list is full of books that are related to my current research on race, psychiatry, and Black religions in the late 19th and early 20th century U.S., including several recent works on psychiatric hospitals and the experiences of Black and Native American patients — Martin Summers’ Madness in the City of Magnificent Intentions: A History of Race and Mental Illness in the Nation’s Capital and Susan Burch’s Committed: Remembering Native Kinship In and Beyond Institutions — top the list. I’m looking forward to reading Onaje X. O. Woodbine’s Take Back What the Devil Stole: An African American Prophet’s Encounters in the Spirit World to think about Black religious creativity and other ways of knowing in opposition to medicalization.

I’ve been listening to historian Kidada Williams’ podcast Seizing Freedom and am eager to finish the first season. It has a compelling combination of narrative episodes that show how Black people forged lives and communities in the wake of slavery; interviews with scholars, including Princeton’s own Tera Hunter; insight about researching and writing histories of Black freedom; and character spotlights that highlight the stories and voices of people who made freedom.

I have several recent books on Black women’s political activism on my list: Martha S. Jones’ Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All and Alison M. Parker’s Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell. And, I’m very excited to read Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold Story and Yaa Gyasi’s novel Transcendent Kingdom.