Books for Summer Reading

By Soder, Roger | Phi Delta Kappan, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Books for Summer Reading


Soder, Roger, Phi Delta Kappan


WITH gas prices predicted to be even higher this summer, you may be having second thoughts about including a long car or plane trip in your vacation plans. To strengthen your resolve to do less damage to the environment and to your credit card, we hereby launch The Summer of Armchair Travel. The inspiration for this campaign came from the fascinating assortment of books that our reviewers chose this year. Simply by coincidence, the majority of them are set in or deal with far-flung places, including that famous "foreign country" the past. Not all of the books fit into the conventional travel genre, but they offer detailed explorations of different lands and cultures.

As we wish you happy mental travels, we must also say bon voyage to Roger Soder, the originator of this popular yearly feature, who is relinquishing his role as salon keeper. Thank you, Roger, for enriching so many summers.

The French expression livre de chevet translates literally as "book at head of bed," which does not have the same implications as "bedside book" in English. Rather than induce sleep, such a book is for frequent brief reading or re-reading. My bedside table has four books on it. My wife's has 24. This summer, I recommend two of mine for Kappan readers to dip into, as I have. The first is a new autobiography by my local congressman, Dave Obey, Raising Hell for Justice (University of Wisconsin Press, 2007). Dave has been involved in local, state, national, and world politics for 50 years and seems to have remembered every proper noun. His stories are grounded in the places he's been and focus on the people with whom he's worked. After reading this book from cover to cover, I now open it at random to savor his clear and reasonable prose about public office and social justice.

Another writer whom I have been privileged to know in person is past Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur. I often end my day by randomly opening his Collected Poems 1943-2004 (Harvest Books, 2006). I knew the daughter he wrote about in "The Writer," an often-anthologized poem about writing and parenthood; any reader can choose his or her own images when reading that poem, and all readers can enjoy every one of Wilbur's lucid and honest verses. I wish all Kappan readers good summer reading any time of day, and especially when they turn to their livres de chevet.--Henry St. Maurice, professor of education, University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.

Terrorism and immigration are heatedly debated topics in this election year. Our book club, quite unintentionally, focused on both issues with two selections: The Looming Tower and What Is the What? Lawrence Wright's Looming Tower (Vintage Books, 2006) won several book awards and found its way onto the "best reads" lists of numerous newspapers (e.g., The Christian Science Monitor) and magazines (e.g., The Economist). Most Americans are fully aware of what al Qaeda is and the threat it represents to the United States. Far fewer in this country understand how Islamic fundamentalism became a reality and a 21st-century terrorist threat. Wright traces the roots of al Qaeda from its conceptual birth in the United States (through an educator, Sayyid Qutb, who completed substantial academic work at Colorado State College of Education) to its current leader, Osama bin Laden. The text has a certain stream-of-consciousness feel to it, as Wright examines aspects of the Islamists' tenets of indoctrination (e.g., establishing the rule of God on Earth) and identifies the enemies of Islam (i.e., heretics such as Hosni Mubarak and, of course, Americans). Wright's analysis is dense but highly readable and well worth the time and effort.

Wright describes in considerable detail bin Laden's sojourn in Sudan, and especially Khartoum. Reading about the strength of the Islamists in northern Sudan made Dave Eggers' What Is the What? (Vintage Books, 2006) even more compelling. Based on the journey to "freedom" of Valentino Achak Deng, the book describes the consequences of the Sudanese civil war, involving Arabs in the north and Dinkas in the south. …

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