Faculty Reading Recommendations

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Michael Gorra, Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English Language & Literature

Michael Gorra

Michael Gorra has been a member of the English Department since 1985. A graduate of Amherst College with a Ph.D. from Stanford University, his teaching and research focuses largely on the novel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Currently at work on a book about Henry James; he has also written The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany; After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie; The English Novel at Mid-Century; and, as editor, The Portable Conrad. Professor Gorra is a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review, BookForum, The Times Literary Supplement and other publications. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation and, for his work as a book reviewer, of the Balakian Award from the National Book Critics Circle. For more information, see Professor Gorra's webpage.

Here are Professor Gorra's book recommendations:

Some of my favorite works of non-fiction belong to a loose category I think of as “things I’m not responsible for.”  Maybe that’s why they’re favorites — books I don’t need for my teaching or writing, books full of stuff I don’t really need to know but am nevertheless delighted to know.  Two good new ones are Parisians, by Graham Robb (Norton) and Leo Damrosch’s Tocqueville’s Discovery of America (FSG).

Parisians, by Graham Robb: Robb offers a collection of emblematic moments in the history of Paris, from the first visit of the young Napoleon in 1787 to the riots in the city’s suburbs in 2005.  It’s really a history of the way people have tried to learn to look at the place — Marie Antoinette getting lost when she tried to run away from the Revolution because nobody had an accurate map of the city, the architect responsible for showing Hitler around in 1940, a motorcyclist attempting to set a record for the fastest trip around the city’s peripheral road.  The writing is imaginative and varied — some chapters go down as easily as Beaujolais while others have the kick of Pernod — and the history is deceptively rigorous.

Tocqueville’s Discovery of America by Leo Damrosch: Damrosch’s book is more straightforward.  We all read Tocqueville in college, and were told (and told to marvel at) how little time he actually spent here, how little work on the ground went into the ethnographic masterpiece that is Democracy in America.  But usually we don’t learn much about where he went and what he did.  Damrosch tells us all that — the parties in New York, the steamship wreck on the Ohio, the persistent strain of violence in the South.   He gives a vivid account of Tocqueville's background — his parents were almost guillotined — but also makes it clear that the writer was the family rebel, an aristocrat who believed one had to live in the present.  Which was what, for better and worse, America represented.

These are both marvelous books.  Anyone who has them on his or her nightstand will be happy.