Summer Reading: Four "Courses"
The long, leisurely days of summer offer a chance to jump off the treadmill of daily duty, and to catch up on life's pleasures, like reading. But why put your brain to sleep on the patio, or litter summer lawns with trash novels? The season cries out for books worth reading.Here are four ideas for summertime reading "courses," an eclectic mix of possibilities to engage the curious mind. Wherever your interests lie -- in current affairs or history, science or religion, the environment around us or the inner depths of human psychology, local or world affairs -- there is something for you here. This is not a roundup of the usual suspects, either; these are books you may easily have missed if you only read new book reviews. A few were published many years ago; the reason they are still in print is simply that they are great books.Within each category four books have been chosen. One or two of these will offer a basic grounding; the others will extend the subject in some way; taken together they give some kind of rounded picture. The one overriding factor governing the selection was that each book had to be well-written, even literary, and readily accessible to the general reader. There is no hint of dry academia. And you don't have to write any term papers. This is the best kind of education there is -- learning about something because you are interested. Any list of four books cannot hope to exhaust any subject. If you read all the books in any category, you will not know all there is to know, but you will be sufficiently informed to go off in your own direction afterward, pursuing your own further reading. That would be a sign of success. At the very least, we want to spark some intense conversations over your backyard barbecues this summer. Take a look at the suggested reading lists and let yourself be seduced.A TASTE OF INDIA India is much in the news right now as the largest democracy on earth and a burgeoning world market. Locally, there is heavy traffic between the Microsoft campus and India's own Silicon Valley in Bangalore. Four books cannot cover the vastness of Indian history and culture. But these will whet the appetite.The first title is an ideal introduction for those who know little about India. It may seem an odd choice, but this is much more than just a cookbook. Nehru's book adds serious depth. If you know the author only as a historical political figure, a name in the pantheon of statesmen, you will discover in these pages an immensely impressive human being. The remaining selections are recent accounts by outstanding travel writers. One author is of Indian descent but not Indian, offering an outsider's view with an insider's eye. The last focuses on India's capital city, Delhi.Each complementing the others, the books are best appreciated if you read all of them at the same time! You will find yourself turning from the travel book's mention of the Jain religion to the pictures of Jain temples in the cookbook, to Nehru's essays on Indian religions. And you will be constantly referring back to the cookbook's useful map.The title of Madhur Jaffrey's beautiful book on Indian cooking, A Taste of India, is to be understood in the very broadest sense. Before you go shopping for spices, you should savor Jaffrey's alluring descriptions of Indian life and the book's evocative photography, which presents mouthwatering food plus images of daily life interspersed with landscapes and cityscapes of marvelous strangeness.Reflecting India's diversity, the recipes are arranged by region, and for each, Jaffrey integrates into a personal narrative its history, people, culture, and cuisine. The opening section on Delhi, about her growing up in that city, gives a wonderful sense of the author, the time, the place, and, in passing, the food. Try the Moghlai chicken braised with almonds and raisins, and the prawns with coconut milk.Now you will be hooked. While enjoying your Indian summer meals you will want to go deeper. The Discovery of India was written by no less than Jawarharlal Nehru himself, India's first prime minister after independence, and is still a classic.Nehru, a supremely confident and cultured man of the world quotes Yeats, Euripides, Nietzsche, and the Bhagavad Gita with ease. Written while he was imprisoned by the British, the proofs had to be corrected by his teenage daughter, Indira, while he was busy forging independence. (Yes, indeed, Indira Gandhi.)After some remarkable personal history, Nehru gives a general survey of Indian culture, then turns to sweeping historical narrative, relating the invasions of India over thousands of years, and the cultural absorption of each successive conqueror. Nehru is unmistakably bitter at the British Raj as he narrates the tragedy of India, the greatness of India, and the idealistic Gandhian vision of independent India.Of course Nehru's book cannot tell us how that vision materialized. V.S. Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now brings us up to date. Naipaul is a Trinidadian of Indian descent, and a famously acerbic travel writer. On his first visit to India he was appalled by the poverty. On this return trip, 27 years later, Naipaul seems to have come to terms with modern India. Here, he travels from Goa to Calcutta, from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, and from palaces to slums. With the exception of his analysis of Sikh fanaticism, he writes with tolerant detachment.Unlike Nehru, the Anglophile Naipaul is easy on the Raj. Since the time of the barbaric crushing by the British of the Indian Mutiny in 1857, Naipaul sees a steady historical progress. The excesses of religious strife, what he calls "a million little mutinies," he considers the consequence of freedom. He still sees a strength and a wholeness to India. Either Naipaul has gone soft, or there is indeed ground for hope.Finally, William Dalrymple's City of Djinns relates, hilariously at times, the author's one-year stay in Delhi researching the history of the city. He reports too on the pogroms following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. As a Scotsman, his take on the Raj is different again from both Nehru and Naipaul. Dalrymple has his moments of British condescension, but is saved by the light appeal of the stories he gathers as he is ferried around Delhi in an International Backside Taxi.THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION Though most mainstream faiths long ago came to accommodate Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, the continued bitter disputing of it by some in the American evangelical tradition reminds us that Darwinism was an intellectual revolution. The ideological battle fought with little fishes on the trunks of cars is worth a deeper look.This selection of four books begins with the source, Darwin himself. His book gives a good sense of the man, of his gentleness and decency, not radical at all, except perhaps in his lifelong opposition to slavery (a big issue back then). Our list moves through the latest scientific evidence and the state of scientific thinking today. Jonathan Weiner is a superb science journalist, while Edward O. Wilson is a Harvard biology professor whose writing has already won two Pulitzers.The last book moves into the philosophical and political consequences of Darwinism. Gertrude Himmelfarb is a neoconservative intellectual, married to Irving Kristol, a neoconservative guru of the Republican right. Her book was published in 1959 on the centenary of On the Origin of Species; just reissued this year, it is presently the only general intellectual history of Darwinism still in print. It adds great spice to our list by going against the grain of the others. Vigorously written, though curiously coy in pinning down her conclusions, it will stimulate debate.We do have one missing link: a comprehensive account focusing specifically on human evolution. Surprisingly, it proved impossible to find an up-to-date general book readily available. Wilson deals with the subject only glancingly; Himmelfarb gives her skeptical take on it, but clearly cannot take account of fossil discoveries since the '50s. This is a hole waiting for an author. In the meantime, here is the wide view of evolution.Charles Darwin's first book, The Voyage of the Beagle, is a journal of that great adventure he undertook as a young man of 22. In 1831 it was an awesome experience to travel to the ends of the earth. He describes not only the natural wonders, the geology, the plants, and the animals, but the people, too. Read for example his entry for April 14, 1832, where he movingly recalls his feelings of disgust and shame when confronted by the degradation of a slave. With its journal form you can dip and browse -- but do not miss his ecstatic walks in the Amazonian rain forest, the earthquake in Chile, the Brazilian estates of the Portuguese colonists, or his sardonic description of the queen of Tahiti. Read too Darwin's account of the Galapagos Islands. There Darwin writes of the finches on the islands, and gives his first hint at the theory of natural selection. In Darwin's time not only was there no proof of this mechanism, but it would have been thought absurd to imagine observing it actually happen; the process was thought to take geological time spans. Jonathan Weiner's book The Beak of the Finch details research done in the last 20 years that proves otherwise. Biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant have documented the evolution of Darwin's Galapagos finches, demonstrating that it is neither rare nor slow. Weiner's account of their work won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 and reads like a thriller.To take a step back from the finches and see the big picture of evolution, open Edward O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life. Wilson presents the latest state of scientific thought on evolution, incorporating modern genetic knowledge. Natural selection, Darwin's original postulated mechanism for evolution, remains the dominant accepted cause of the creation of new species.Wilson's evocative nature writing is centered by a deeply humanistic perspective to his science. His scientific understanding that evolution is "guided by no vision, bound to no distant purpose" creates no existential crisis for him. Wilson touches only lightly on this controversial button --the implications of Darwinism beyond science. This is the domain of Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution by Gertrude Himmelfarb, a conservative social historian, not a scientist.Himmelfarb's criticism of some of the science is out of date, but her discussion of the philosophical debate around Darwinism is stimulating. She points to the failure of Science to fill the moral and ethical void left by the ousting of religion; and to the use of Darwinism in politics to justify everything from fascism to libertarianism.Himmelfarb considers unproven the most radical tenet of Darwinism -- the evolution of man from lower forms. Her implicit agenda seems to be a clinging to the uniqueness of man, and the primacy of the spiritual over the material. Without descending to creationism, Himmelfarb's skepticism about the wider role of Darwinism is provocative.EXPLORING THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST Despite all the people in the Pacific Northwest, you can still reach out and touch nature. Turn your head and Mount Rainier floats in the sky; Lake Washington lies blue before you. It takes only a squint of the eye and imagination to see the virgin land of not so long ago.Setting out to explore how it was then, and how the geography of the place has molded its history and culture, the initial idea in creating this particular section was to offer a glimpse at original sources. All three of the nonfiction selections quote extensively from lively accounts by early travelers. The first two on the list are indispensable primers to life in the Northwest and guides to further reading. The New York Times' Timothy Egan will fill you in on what the big Northwest issues are, while Seattle Weekly's Bruce Barcott will demonstrate the culture and history of the place. The list is closed with a novel for variety; read in parallel with the nonfiction, it should add imaginative depth to the historical picture.No book gives a broader sense of the place than Northwest Passages, an anthology of writings about the Pacific Northwest, edited by Seattle Weekly staff writer Bruce Barcott. Excerpts from the original journals of such early white explorers as George Vancouver and Peter Puget give a picture of what they found here.To mention only one example, Theodore Winthrop's account of his attempt in 1853 to hire an Indian canoe to take him from Port Townsend to the Nisqually delta is reminiscent of P.J. O'Rourke at his funniest, with all the insensitivity that implies. One cannot read it without laughing, at the same time feeling the pathos of subsequent Indian history. The voices of those original Northwesterners are represented in the speeches of Native American leaders, including a searing testament to betrayal by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. From there the book follows the history of the Northwest, through pioneer days to the present, recording memorable pictures of the people and of raw nature. There is also an excerpt from every major work of fiction set in the Northwest.What happened later to the Nez Perce is one of the stories in The Good Rain, by Timothy Egan, the Northwest correspondent for The New York Times. Egan's subjects are history and the environment and the people in between. He makes brilliant use of Winthrop's account of his travels; he writes a scathingly funny account of a visit to Victoria in British Columbia. But he also reports on a more sinister aspect of the Northwest. The story of the Goldmark case -- a terrible Seattle murder in 1985 that grew out of anti-communist hysteria in Eastern Washington in the early '60s -- gives a glimpse of the extremists and conspiracy theorists who seek a home in the rugged West.That is the dark side of the once-shiny Western myth. The original heroic model was the epic journey of Lewis and Clark, recently recounted in Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage. Beyond the dramatic story of high adventure, this is also a compelling historical portrait of these men and their mission, again using extensive quotes from the original journals. Lewis and Clark emerge as brave, decent human beings. They were also advance agents of a "manifest destiny" that would decimate the aboriginal inhabitants. The encounters between these intrepid Americans and the Indian bands, in almost total ignorance of one another's culture, are historical moments of immense poignancy.Finally, to complete the picture of the forging of the Northwest, a historical novel: The Living, by Annie Dillard. When the Fishburn family steps ashore in 1855, arriving at the settlement that would later become Bellingham, "on the rough edges of the world," the trees seem to crowd in upon the dock, only a minimal footing yet carved out for people.Dillard's story is a lusty, many-faceted novel, covering the interconnected lives of several families from the 1850s to the turn of the century. The Fishburns carted a feather bed across a continent in the hope of a little comfort at the end. It was a foolish hope. From our present feather-bed existence in latte land, it is good to have a sense of how it began.THE INTIMACY OF REVOLUTION History, or the media, may try to tidy up revolution, putting it in a package with the ends tied up, but violent change is still a disturbing mess. Up close and personal, revolution is human and intimate and dark.The books in this category were chosen for their depth of insight into a historical moment of sweeping change. Though the evils confronted -- racism, totalitarian power, and anti-Semitism -- are the usual abstractions, the stories are told on a human level, and each has some element that gives an unusually committed and complex perspective.First, there is a passionately emotional exploration of racial violence from a white South African. Next, a Polish foreign correspondent reports on the corruption of totalitarianism in Africa, a theme that was understood as a resonant allegory in his home country at the time. The story of the Haitian revolution has the ingredients of Shakespearean tragedy: a noble hero, a terrible betrayal, a bloody end. The account chosen here, a more packaged historical account than the other books, is included for the deep empathy of the West Indian author. Finally, a Yiddish novel by an Eastern European Jew intimately explores the community he was part of, casting a harsh, unyielding eye both on his own people and on the sources of anti-Semitism. Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart tells of South Africa just prior to the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, on the cusp of dramatic change, though it never did go over the brink to an all-out race war.Malan, a white South African who fled and lived for eight years in Los Angeles, felt compelled to return when apartheid finally began to crack. This book is Malan's wrestle with the personal demon of racism. An anguished personal odyssey as he seeks to reconcile himself to his violent country, the book ends with a story that is such a heart-rending mix of love, nobility, and tragedy that we see how inadequate the broad sweep of history is for telling the human tale. Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor, translated from Polish, tells the story of the 1974 overthrow of the Ethiopian monarch Emperor Haile Selassie -- who ruled with a Kafkaesque, absolute power. What makes Kapuscinski's reporting unusually intimate is that he interviewed the servants and low officials of the palace, the men who had tended the emperor daily until his fall. So here is the revolution from the mouths of the emperor's valet, the emperor's purse carrier, and the man whose job for 10 years was to clean up the pee of the emperor's dog. His Highness's dignity meant that no person could look him in the eye. In the rural areas his people were starving while he served meat to his dogs from a silver platter.The nature of a revolution is intimately bound to the fate of its leader. The Black Jacobins, by the Trinidadian C.L.R. James -- Marxist writer, Africanist, and cricket correspondent -- is the history of the 1791 black slave revolt on the French West Indian island of Haiti, then the most lucrative colony in the world. Inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution back in the mother country, the revolt was led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, a 45-year-old slave.When the National Convention in Paris decreed the abolition of slavery, L'Ouverture joined his fate with revolutionary France and became a French general. But tragically, L'Ouverture, who had tried to hold back anti-white sentiment, was betrayed by Napoleon and died in prison in Paris. Meanwhile, back on the island, without his restraining leadership, blood flowed freely. L'Ouverture's lieutenant took charge, killed all the whites on the island, and declared independence. Such was the tragic, bitter birth of Haiti.The final recommendation here is a novel, The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936), by Israel Joshua Singer, translated from the Yiddish by his son Joseph (and not to be confused with his more famous younger brother, Isaac Bashevis Singer). Reminiscent of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Mann, this is a tale of one family caught in the sweep of history, of men torn and destroyed by great events. Set in Lodz in Poland at the turn of the century, the world is in a state of flux as the birth of capitalism and the industrial revolution painfully transform European society and breed a socialist resistance. Caught in the middle of the great ideological battle are the Jews of Lodz.Under Singer's unflinching eye, the orthodox Jewish community splits between the secular and the religious, modernists and traditionalists, capitalists and socialist radicals. Deprived of a fixed center, individuals are swept along by societal excess.There is no happy ending. The old world is torn asunder, with Jews having played an active part on both sides. And yet nothing is changed. The brutal forces of anti-Semitism still weigh upon the Jews in a hostile world. So it goes with revolutions.SIDEBAR: Booked for the Summer Kick off your summertime brain activity with these courses of study. The books listed below are all paperbacks, except where noted.A TASTE OF INDIA City of Djinns, by William Dalrymple (HarperCollins, Flamingo, 1993, $12). The Discovery of India, by J. Nehru (Oxford University Press, 1946, $11.95). India: A Million Mutinies Now, by V.S. Naipaul (Viking Penguin, 1990, $14.95). A Taste of India, by Madhur Jaffrey (Macmillan, Atheneum, 1988, $26). THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner (Random House, Vintage, 1994, $13). Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (Ivan R. Dee Inc., 1959, $16.95). The Diversity of Life, by Edward O. Wilson (Norton, 1992, $14.95). The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin (Penguin Classics, 1839, $10.95). EXPLORING THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST The Good Rain, by Tim Egan (Random House, Vintage, 1990, $11). The Living, by Annie Dillard (HarperCollins, Perennial, 1992, $13). Northwest Passages, edited by Bruce Barcott (Sasquatch Books, 1994, $15.95). Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose (Simon & Schuster, hardback, 1996, $27.50). THE INTIMACY OF REVOLUTION The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James (Random House, Vintage, 1963, $14). This will likely need to be ordered; use ISBN 0679724672. The Brothers Ashkenazi, by I.J. Singer (Penguin Classics, 1936, $11.95). The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuscinski (Random House, Vintage, 1978, $9). My Traitor's Heart, by Rian Malan (Random House, Vintage, 1990, $12).