What a great idea: ask some 70 colleagues at your university — in this case the University of Virginia — to provide a short essay with a list of five books on a subject in their fields. The result here is even better than the premise, since each prof responds in his or her own way, some recommending tried-and-true canonical works, others listing books in their areas that reach out to general readers, and others simply suggesting five ways of sampling a masterpiece. The contributions span the university curriculum and include suggestions on historical and political topics (the Founding Fathers, poverty in modern America, 19th-century Chicago); on science and mathematics (the evolution of visual perception, symmetry and group theory, the history of logic); and on literature and the arts (the poetry of mourning, 100 years of jazz, the 19th-century Spanish novel). Other essays explore religious ideas, child development, and issues in illness and mental health. In short, it’s a real educational smorgasbord, much like an annotated course guide. Some authors find their way onto more than one list, but not always for the reason you might expect. Shakespeare shows up in readings for a study of ethical values as well on a more conventional list for the English “word hoard.” Among contemporary writers and scholars, Jared Diamond, Michael Klarman, E. O. Wilson, Julia Alvarez, and Michael Pollan all make multiple appearances for their recent work in a wide range of disciplines. The delights here are many, and the intellectually curious will consult this clever collection time and again. Let’s hope other universities follow the format — a first-class education at your fingertips.
About the Author
Thomas DePietro, a former contributing editor of Kirkus Reviews, has also published in Commonweal, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review. He recently edited Conversations with Don DeLillo, and his book on Kingsley Amis is forthcoming.