Monday, May 10, 2010

Beautiful Books

Graduate student life has many cheap thrills: scoring a free dinner from the uneaten sandwiches after a faculty meeting, returning an inter-library loan right before the deadline. But advisers take note: nothing will thrill your graduate students more than inviting them to hang out with you and your friends from the academe. First, you are the celebrities of our world; we find it both flattering and fun to be included in even your most mundane social gatherings. Second, we don’t have as many opportunities as we would like to receive professional advice. Your casual anecdotes are often worth more than the megabytes of information circulating through graduate student channels. Your conversations with each other teach us about what our future colleagues will expect and value.
I remember distinctly one such conversation, from a small dinner event that a kind adviser invited me to attend. Most of the other guests were professors of the same sub-field, and toward the end of the evening, they got into a lively debate about a colleague’s recently published book. To my pleasant surprise, one word that everyone circled back to was “beautiful.” Opinions differed as to the author's interpretation and intention, but all parties appreciated the book's elegant prose and thoughtful construction. It was clearly a pleasure to read and a pleasure to remember.
The conversation reminded me of a piece of advice that I received while studying for “comps”: to read not only for substance but for craftsmanship. Lynn Hunt offers similar guidance in her recent Art of History column. Take note when you “read[] a book that grabs you,” she urges. “[C]onsider how the author accomplishes that effect. What is it that draws you in? What makes you think it beautiful or forceful or astute? . . . . What can you learn about writing from it?” In the spirit of this advice, I’ve flagged several books that are, to me, inspiring examples of the craft.
  • Erika Lee’s At America’s Gates, a vivid history of Chinese immigration in the Exclusion Era, told through oral histories, letters, immigration records, and photographs. The personal stories in this book haunted me, while Lee's analysis made me think about the administrative state in a new way.
  • Annelise Orleck’s Storming Caesars Palace, a careful and compassionate reconstruction of how poor mothers in Las Vegas utilized federal community development resources to challenge the public assistance system during the years between the war on poverty and the war on welfare.
  • Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice, a history of the African American struggle for equality in the 1920s, told through a thick description of the Ossian Sweet case. (Sweet, a black physician, was tried for murder after he moved into a predominantly white Detroit neighborhood and attempted to defend his home.)
    These are biased toward my own interests (and in the Orleck cite, toward a beloved college professor), but the point is a broader one. To me, these books exemplify both rigorous legal historical scholarship and brilliant communication. I pass these on to family members when they ask what I’ve been trying to accomplish through all these years in school. I pick these up when I’m feeling stuck. As Hunt reminds us, “Assistance is available close at hand” – we just “have to know where to look for it.”
    Do you all keep lists of “beautiful books”? What is on yours?