It has become a holiday tradition on the OUPblog to ask our favorite people about their favorite books. This year we asked authors to participate (OUP authors and non-OUP authors). For the next two weeks we will be posting their responses which reflect a wide variety of tastes and interests, in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. Check back daily for new books to add to your 2010 reading lists. If that isn’t enough to keep you busy next year check out all the great books we have discovered during past holiday seasons: 2006, 2007, 2008 (US), and 2008 (UK).
Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. In her new book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, she explains how the rapid and pervasive demand for authenticity–evident in escalating real estate prices, expensive stores, and closely monitored urban streetscapes–has helped drive out the very people who first lent a neighborhood its authentic aura: immigrants, the working class, and artists.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has sat on a low bookshelf in my dining room for years. Just this September, because of the economic crisis, I decided to read it. I knew it was a Depression-era classic, and I hoped it would be a guide to how to think about massive job loss and rising hunger rates. Even people who haven’t read the book know Walker Evans’s black-and-white photographs of sober-faced men in denim overalls and straw hats, sad-eyed wives and daughters in shapeless dresses like flour sacks, and barefoot children with dirty hands sitting outside wooden shanties: images of rural poverty as strange and familiar as an ancient dream.
The truly remarkable thing about this book, though, is James Agee’s prose. A poet and fiction writer, Agee is Friedrich Engels with William Faulkner’s pen. He exposes lack of hope in a rural south of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, where landless whites try to hold onto a shred of respectability among their neighbors and a fragile sense of unearned superiority to nearby blacks. Agee layers detailed observations of landscapes and houses, material possessions—few as they are, and desires that are buried so deep no one can speak about them.
An outdated picture calendar hanging on a nail on the kitchen wall, a sickly sore-infested mule, clay-covered work shoes with more clay crusted under the uppers, sweat stains at the ankles, slashed open to give room to their owner’s corns: Agee records every painful image. With great tenderness he describes a man and woman sleeping on a shallow mattress on their iron bed, the last night of freedom of a young girl visiting her family before returning to her husband, a “mean and jealous” man in a distant town whom she does not love, the “baroque rusting iron” of a kitchen stove. He is an unusually self-conscious writer, “reflexive,” we sociologists now call it, a post-modern ethnographer in modern literary form. No wonder Fortune magazine, which sent Agee and Evans on a reporting trip to Alabama for six weeks in 1936, refused to publish his articles.
Though Agee doesn’t preach a Marxist gospel, he makes no secret of sharing communist ideals. He believes that each man and woman should be free to achieve their highest potential, and he clearly regrets the impassable roads and lack of future prospects that make it so hard for the children to go to school. The fact, as he records it, that he has never seen the mother in one family wearing shoes, and that another woman’s work dresses are made of fertilizer sacks, and that the small kitchen’s leaky tin roof and wood-fired stove make it so hot “at the noon meal time that, merely entering it, sweat is started in a sheet from the whole surface of the body, and the solar plexus and the throat are clutched into tight kicking knots which relax sufficiently to admit food only after two or three minutes”—all of this takes an intolerable toll on human life and, we feel, on the writer. This book is both a powerful social document and an incredibly poetic piece of work.
Most children’s books that I love I have read as an adult. Most of those books I read with my daughter, with her locked in my arm in a rocking chair placed between her crib and the window or me perched on the edge of her mattress at bedtime. Around the age of ten, she decided she no longer wanted me to read aloud to her, and her push for independence ended my literary education.
The books I owned as a child made a meager library. I remember Little Golden books, illustrated Bible stories (Rachel’s flowing brown hair, Daniel facing down a lion), Heidi, whose Swiss mountain landscape I found totally foreign, and the complete works of Shakespeare—this must have been my father’s contribution. But with my daughter I collected and read the great children’s classics, both old and new. We loved Roald Dahl’s irony, Frog and Toad’s loyalty, the D’Aulaires’ humane Greek myths, Black Beauty’s grace (yes, at the end I cried). We followed Alec Ramsay and the black stallion through the entire series of books, and for several years eagerly watched the Kentucky Derby on TV. Reading to my daughter, I understood the difference between The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
My favorite of all these books is the four little red volumes of Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library. From an early age, a child can hold each one in her hand, and the four tiny volumes, packaged together in a little brown cardboard box, are a physical object a child can love. I used to read them to my daughter while she was eating in her high chair, for now they are covered with apple juice spots and wiped-off bits of scrambled egg. Three of the books teach cultural literacy in simple rhymes: Alligators All Around: An Alphabet, One Was Johnny: A Counting Book, Chicken Soup With Rice: A Book of Months. They’re wonderful to read aloud: “In May/ I truly think it best/ to be a robin/ lightly dressed/ concocting soup/inside my nest./ Mix it once/ mix it twice/ mix that chicken soup/ with rice.” These lines are never boring.
The fourth book is different. Rhymed like the others, Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue tells a story about a boy just this side of nasty who rejects his parents’ love. One night when they go out and leave him at home alone (unlikely in fact, but truly Sendakian), Pierre is devoured by a hungry lion. I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I’ll just quote the prologue: “Read his story/ my friend,/ for you’ll find/ at the end/ that a suitable/ moral lies there.” I wish all stories could end so well.