Category Archives: Great Books

Q&A: Reading and Writing with Alexander Byrd

Alexander X. Byrd is an Associate Professor of History at Rice University. In 2020 he was appointed Rice’s first Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Dr. Byrd’s area of expertise is Afro America, especially Black life in the Atlantic world and the Jim Crow South. He received his Ph.D. in History from Duke University in 2001. His study of free and forced transatlantic Black migration in the period of the American Revolution, Captives and Voyagers: Black Migrants Across the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (LSU Press, 2010), received the 2009 Wesley-Logan Prize in African Diaspora History. Dr. Byrd teaches courses in African-American history at Rice, where he is a four-time recipient of the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching. He is currently co-editing the Oxford Handbook of African American History with Dr. Celia Naylor.

Alexander X. Byrd, PhD

What first got you interested in history?

The first blame must go to good teachers who were also good story tellers. Well-stocked school and public libraries and the librarians who staffed were also at fault. Also, the stories on which I grew up that most sparked my imagination were historical in nature—between Alex Haley’s Roots and NBC’s Ba Ba Black Sheep—that had to have had some effect too.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

As I child in Colorado Springs, I read every book in the school library on World War II. Maybe I missed a few. Still, when I moved to Houston (at about eleven years old), there were no books on the subject at my school or in my branch of the public library that I hadn’t already read. I recall having to re-read The Battle of Britain. By the sixth grade, I was on to Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) but by then I was also falling out of reading about war.

What book did you read in grad school that you never want to see again—and what book was most influential?

There are ways in which I’m still wrestling with Melville J. Herskovit’s The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), Sidney Mintz and Richard Price’s The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Approach (1992), and Nathan Huggins’s Black Odyssey: The African-American Ordeal in Slavery (1977). Mary Karasch’s Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro, 1808-1850 (1987), Jan Vansina’s Paths in the Rainforest (1990),and George Brook’s Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630 (1993) were also quite influential. Wait, you said one book. There were so many great books! 

What’s the last great book you read, fiction or non-fiction?

I am a fan of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016).

When you’re not reading for your particular field of history, what else do you like to read? What genres do you avoid? And what’s your guilty reading pleasure?

Uh oh. Everything I read is related to my work. But I stream with the captions on. So I count that as recreational reading, and lately I’ve leaned toward sci-fi, alternative history, and super heroes on screen: Black LightningRaised by WolvesThe ExpanseThe Man in the High CastleLuke Cage. I should stop answering this question.

What do you read—in print or online—to stay informed?

The AtlanticThe New York TimesThe Washington PostThe New Republic, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Review of Books. But I still feel terribly under informed and uninformed. Maybe I don’t read the news as carefully as I used to. But I also have this feeling that there is news out there that I can’t find—that there is a universe of online writing that I haven’t and can’t tap into. 

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

All day in a full house of Byrds with brief stops for espresso, some stretches, sweets, and maybe a pizza. 

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

I assume that I’m always a few years behind everyone else.

What book or collection of books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

To save the other Byrds from embarrassment, I can’t say. I don’t think that people would suspect, though, that I had Robert Alter’s translations of the Hebrew Bible here and there. 

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Writing is hard. I try to be patient with writers. So when I put a book down, it’s usually less out of disappointment and more out of my schedule getting out of hand. There’s a good book barely under my bed, and another on my night stand that I need to return to. 

What book would you recommend for America’s current moment?

This is not a bad time to pick up Cathy Park Hong (Dance Dance Revolution, 2007, and Engine Empire, 2012) and Hanif Abdurraqib (The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, 2016, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, 2017, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on a Tribe Called Quest, 2019, A Fortune For Your Disaster, 2019). 

What do you plan to read next?

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020).

What is the next book you’re going to write? 

A story of three Houston schools that speaks to the inequities and promise of public education now. I’ve been writing this book too long (and it’s too short to have taken this long). But I also think that parts of it are pretty good. It’s a book about schools, but to write it, I’ve done more research on parking garages than I ever thought I’d have occasion to do. 

When and how do you write?

Not enough. But I’m learning to fit it in however and whenever I can. It’s taken me too long to learn this lesson.

With which three historic figures, dead or alive, would you like to have dinner?

I never have a good answer to this question. One of the great things about being a historian is that one is forever having dinner, or coffee, or breakfast with historic figures dead or alive.

Q&A: Reading and Writing with Lisa Lindquist Dorr

Lisa Lindquist Dorr is a Professor of History at the University of Alabama and Associate Dean of Social Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2000. Dr. Dorr is the author of several books on Southern and Women’s history, including A Thousand Thirsty Beaches: Smuggling Alcohol from Cuba to the South During Prohibition (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), and White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960 (UNC Press, 2004).

Lisa Lindquist Dorr, PhD

What first got you interested in history?

When I was five, my parents took me to Colonial Williamsburg.  I was already fascinated by what we called “the olden days” and literally thought that the re-enactors were people still around from 200 years ago.  I remember being so excited that they were still here.  So I think I always was drawn to history, and when I told my childhood friends I was headed to grad school in history, no one was surprised in the least. 

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read all the time as a kid, or as my mother expressed with much exasperation, I “always had my nose in a book.”  There was even a time when we were spending several days cleaning for a big party that she actually hid my book so I wouldn’t disappear to read.  I read books over and over when I was young; the Little House on the Prairie books, the One-of-a-Kind Family books, Madeleine L’Engle, E.L. Konigsberg, Lois Lenski.  That said, my own children turn up their noses at pretty much anything I suggest.  I just leave books around and let them find them on their own.

What book did you read in grad school that you never want to see again—and what book was most influential?

The book that nearly killed my cohort was Stephen Skowronek’s Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920 (Cambridge University Press, 1982). Its cover design should have warned us; no one got paid to put any thought into that cover.  Of course, after I had taught the second half of the US survey a bunch of times, I was a little more appreciative of his contribution.  The most influential book is hard—it varies so much based on what I happen to be interested in at the moment.  But Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (W.W. Norton, 1987) is a contender.  It was a powerful moment when I realized how long it took historians to analyze why most people accused of witchcraft in the colonial period were women.  Astounding.

What’s the last great book you read, fiction or non-fiction?

Anxious People: A Novel by Frederik Backman (Atria, 2020)  I laughed, I cried, I was left gasping and gutted at one revelation late in the novel.  The book has so much warmth and heart, humor and kindness that it was the perfect book for this moment.

When you’re not reading for your particular field of history, what else do you like to read? What genres do you avoid? And what’s your guilty reading pleasure?

I am always reading and listening to fiction—I find I can weed my garden for hours or actually clean the kitchen if I listen to a novel.  I have been keeping a list of books to read since 2013 (it’s now seven pages long, with two columns per page), and have found that I don’t like epic multi-generational sagas or fiction about women in World War II.  I am also wary of fiction related to my area of expertise—too many irritating historical errors.  My guilty pleasure is a regular helping of thrillers.  I consider them the fast food of literature.

What do you read—in print or online—to stay informed?

I am a diligent reader of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker online as well as Tuscaloosa’s local paper, the Tuscaloosa News. I am mystified by the idea of getting my news through social media, which I think makes me old.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I like nothing better than to curl up on my couch with a good book, with views of my birdfeeders in the back yard.  And nothing is more indulgent to me than reading a novel for three or four hours in the afternoon; I don’t let myself do it much.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

Rickie Solinger’s book, The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law (Free Press, 1995).  It will blow your mind about how common and accepted abortion was well before Roe v. Wade.

What book or collection of books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have several shelves of Young Adult historical fiction.  One of the most satisfying classes I ever taught was for secondary social studies education students on teaching history using historical fiction.  There are so many terrific books out there, and fiction can hook K-12 students in ways textbooks most surely can’t.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

Since graduate school, I make a distinction between reading for work and reading.  Since I became a dean, I read less for work, which bothers me.  With fiction, when I was younger, I tried to read only “good” books, meaning critically acclaimed novels.  At this point in my life, I rarely want to work hard reading fiction.  I steer away from books described as lyrical or surreal or dreamlike.  I need a plot line I can follow.

When I was in my twenties, I was enthralled by stories of great and overwhelming love, which the protagonist dropped everything to pursue.  Two examples:  Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (Doubleday, 1971) and Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith (Putnam, 1988).  When I read those books years later, I found I could no longer relate to dropping everything for love.  There were other loves that competed and outweighed romantic love, especially love for one’s children.  I realized how much where one is in one’s life shapes how we understand the characters in novels.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Again, I have to go to fiction here.  I am much more diligent about reading all that I am supposed to when I read history.  I either mine it for what I need or read it all to consider it as an entire work.  Which novel have I tried to read twice and can’t despite a torrent of accolades?  The Overstory: A Novel, by Richard Power (W.W. Norton, 2018).  Everyone says it is truly a great book, but I find its stories so sad I can’t make myself finish it.

What book would you recommend for America’s current moment?

Something about the importance of thinking about the common good.  But other than that, I would refer you back to Anxious People.

What do you plan to read next?

Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, by Richard A. McKay (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

What is the next book you’re going to write?

A book on abortion in the South from 1920 to Roe v. Wade. The history of abortion is a good example of how the past is not like people think it was. And my hope is that understanding the past better will help people think a little differently about the present.

When and how do you write?

Juggling scholarship and “deaning” is a challenge.  I have become completely tethered to my email calendar.  There are always small bits of time when I can think productively about research, so I make sure that there are small research tasks I can do when I have 30 or 45 minutes free.  My writing mantra is that you should always do several hours of your own work first, before you get distracted by students or meetings or life. So when I am writing, I write best in the first couple of hours of the day, which I religiously block off on my calendar.  When I feel like I have run out of things to say (or have a meeting approaching), I always leave a few notes about what should come next to make it easier to pick up and get back into the writing flow when I return.

With which three historic figures, dead or alive, would you like to have dinner?

Ella Baker, because I would want to talk with her about organizing and strategy for movements. And the Obamas, because I am really, really sure that if we met, we would all be best friends.

Dispatches From Off the Deaton Path: Christopher Morley

In this Dispatch, Dr. Deaton remembers the life and works of the one of his favorite writers, Christopher Morley, born 130 years ago today.

The Greatest Novel Ever Written?

Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1. The C. Scott Moncrieff Translation, Edited and Annotated by William C. Carter (1913; rpt. Yale University Press, 2013, 487 pp.)

“What are you reading these days, Stan?”


Let’s face it, one of the best reasons for reading an author like Marcel Proust is being able to tell people that you’re reading an author like Marcel Proust. To get the full effect, you should be wearing a bow tie, adjusting your monocle, and holding a pipe.

While I was reading Proust, I had no less than three occasions to tell inquiring minds that I was reading Proust, just as if I’d tee’d it up myself. Even without the bow tie, monocle, or pipe the effect remained the same: the questioner seemed impressed, slightly bemused, or downright baffled by my choice of summer reading. Responses ranged from “Hmm, something heavy,” to “A little light reading, huh?” to “Who?”

My own response might be, “Why?”

The reason, of course, is that Proust is one of those writers, like James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe, that usually show up on the list of 20th-century authors who are “must-reads.” But are they really? You began to wonder once you start reading their books. Their writing can seem like trying to climb the literary Mount Everest–forbidding, daunting, and, yes, even unreadable. Who hasn’t cracked open Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and wondered, what the hell is even going on here?

In Search of Lost Time is made up of not one but seven volumes, of which Swann’s Way is the first. Proust published it at his own expense in 1913; he published two more volumes before his death in 1922 and the last four were published posthumously between 1923 and 1927.

“This is the longest first-rate novel ever written. Its difficulties, like its rewards, are vast. If you respond to it at all (many do not) you may feel quite justified in spending what time you can spare over the next five or ten years making it a part of your interior world.” So wrote Clifton Fadiman in his essay on Proust in The Lifetime Reading Plan nearly 60 years ago. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it “one of the most profound achievements of the human imagination.” All of this is still true.

What is this book about? In 1909 Proust experienced a moment that perhaps you’ve shared: the involuntary recall of a childhood memory. It happened through the act of eating a piece of bread dipped in tea. Struck by the impact of it, he committed the rest of his life to writing a novel about recapturing lost time, the vanished past that gives our lives beauty and meaning. The novel was formerly referred to as Remembrance of Things Past.

Sometimes it’s heavy sledding, and sometimes not. The prose is famously beautiful, but, as Fadiman says, Proust can analyze “with intolerable exhaustiveness” and you may agree with him and other critics that the book is “less like a narrative than a symphony.” Proust could challenge Henry James for sentences that go on for days, but for all the underbrush, when you do come upon a clearance the views are indeed magnificent.

To say that there is a Proust cult would be an understatement. Shelby Foote–he of Civil War and Ken Burns fame–read all seven volumes at least nine times in his life and considered him second only to Shakespeare among writers. Alan Jacobs in The Pleasure of Reading in the Age of Distraction (Oxford, 2011) wrote that one of his high school teachers affirmed that she read the entire seven volumes every summer “because the book was so great, and so deep, and so subtle that she always found something new in it, always had more to learn about it and through it.” Yale University Press is in the midst of publishing new editions of the C. Scott Moncrieff translation, edited and annotated by the renowned Proust scholar and biographer William C. Carter.

There seem to be three schools of thought on this tome: that it’s the greatest novel in the world; that it’s unreadable; or, finally, that it’s mammoth but minor. To which of these do I subscribe after finishing the first volume?

I did not find it unreadable, though I can definitely say that at times I felt like the proverbial buyer who wanders in but is “just looking around”–I wasn’t always sure what was going on but I admired everything and just kept moving. At this point I wouldn’t call it the greatest novel ever written, but give me another year and I’ll be ready to tackle the next volume.

If Proust really is better than Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen, Hugo, Dumas, or a host of others, he will be a mountain well worth climbing.

Check back with me in about ten years.  

What I’m Reading Now: August 7, 2018

Paper or Plastic?

Once again this week we take a break from discussing a particular book to examine other literary topics of interest. This week: printed books vs. the electronic version.

Philip Leighton, a consultant on library design, said that “books are for reading and computers are for research.” Without going quite that far, I’ll say that if any long-suffering reader of this blog needs to be told which version I prefer, then you haven’t been paying attention. This isn’t really about which is best but what is particular to each and the joys they bring.

There is of course a great deal of difference between reading the printed word and reading text (like the words you’re reading right this red-hot second). The experience of holding a tactile object in your hand, with pages that must be turned, is very different from holding an electronic device with a screen that one scrolls through and plugs in when the battery runs down. Both of them offer words but in very different ways. And let the record show, I’m heartily in favor of both.

Breaking news: I love books. Real books. I love the smell and the feel of them. I have several thousand in my home, over a thousand more in my office at GHS, and several hundred in a mountain cabin. Some people see books as clutter, as something to be gotten rid of or to be periodically “pared down.” People who say things to me like, “you need to get rid of all these books” are subsequently banned from the premises, if not out of my life altogether. What utter rubbish. No, I don’t have room for them all, but if I did then I wouldn’t have enough. See how that works? Augustine Birrell put it best: “An ordinary man can surround himself with two thousand books and thence forward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.

Still, as incomprehensible as it might be to me, some people love e-readers like the Kindle precisely because it makes all those physical objects—and finding room for them—unnecessary. If you simultaneously love to read but don’t like walking into a room and seeing the majesty of rows of books displayed on a shelf (besides obviously being a candidate for psycho-analysis), then the e-reader is for you.

The e-reader brings its own joys. As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the beauties of the Kindle is the ease with which one can find the complete works of some great authors and their otherwise scarce books and purchase them for practically nothing.

My Kindle has the complete or collected works of the authors you’d expect to find like Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, but also the complete works of writers whose work I’ve never come across in a bookstore, such as the masters of horror fiction like Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Arthur Machen; great crime masters such as Sax Rohmer (creator of Dr. Fu Manchu), Baroness Emma Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel), Austin Freeman (Dr. Thorndyke mysteries), Clayton Rawson (The Great Merlini series), along with the exploits of Pulp-era detectives Bulldog Drummond, Average Jones, and Craig Kennedy (“the scientific detective”); childhood favorites like Tom Corbett (Space Cadet) and the Rick Brant Adventures; timeless reads such as Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Joseph Addison’s Spectator, as well as the complete works of nearly forgotten authors Edith Nesbit, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Love Peacock, Tobias Smollett, Ann Radcliffe, Samuel Richardson, Kenneth Grahame, Horace Walpole, and many others. It’s all at my fingertips, cost virtually nothing, and takes up no space.

It goes without saying that I could never lug such a variety of genres around with me in such a compact and convenient way, even if I lived long enough to find these books in print. The e-reader is obviously perfect for the waiting room and the airport, while having the Kindle app on your phone is the perfect antidote to those interminable DMV visits or any unexpected long delay anywhere.

The only drawback is that you can’t impress anyone around you by reading War and Peace on your phone. Not to mention, if you’re reading anything with that many pages—trust me on this—you’re going to need to see yourself making real progress in a real book or you’ll feel like you’re trapped in digital hell.

The e-reader then is yet another wonderful tool for bringing more reading into our lives. This blog stands decidedly in favor of that. May it continue to thrive and offer readers the chance to discover or re-discover authors whose works have been sadly forgotten or those whose books grace the best-seller lists, whichever you prefer.

Book lovers used to despair that e-readers might one day replace the real thing. As I watch vinyl records make a strong comeback (while CDs and places to play them disappear), and the sale of e-books stagnate, I no longer worry. I’m confident that printed books aren’t going anywhere.

Where will the books I bought on my Kindle be in 30 years? I have no idea. But the real things will still be waiting on the shelves, companions of a lifetime whose friendship never grows old. Pete Hamill said “there are 10,000 books in my library, and it will keep growing until I die. This has exasperated my daughters, amused my friends, and baffled my accountant. If I had not picked up this habit in the library long ago, I would have more money in the bank today. I would not be richer.”

However we read, we can all agree with Matthew Price: “Books, in all their myriad forms, are necessary equipment for living.”