Discussions on the art and craft of research

Month: May 2022

Inspired by the Book: Be Ye Transformed

Inspired by the Book is a series of interviews with Connecticut College folks about their literary lives. Inspiration comes from The New York Times Book Review series called By the Book.

Reginald White is the new vice president for Human Resources at Connecticut College. He earned a bachelors of science in psychology and human development from Cornell University and an executive masters in business administration from Boston University. He held positions at Bank of Boston, Citibank and KeyBank, before moving into executive leadership roles in human resources and marketing at both Fidelity Investments and Merrill Lynch. He also founded Toran Enterprises, a consulting firm, and later returned to his alma mater as senior director of human resources for Cornell’s research division.

In this interview we go off-script and Reginald shares a story about how books changed his life. What follows is Reginald’s story:

My story begins when I was about 10 years old. My family had moved from the Bronx to Fishkill, NY in search of a better quality of life. As part of its normal practice, the elementary school conducted a series of assessments to gauge my knowledge and competence in a wide range of academic areas. It was determined that I was reading just below grade level and I was assigned a tutor. As a 10 year old in a new school, I was not happy about the situation. However, in retrospect, Mrs. Reed literally changed my life! She was the shepherd who helped me navigate the important transition from learning to read to reading to learn.

In the coming months and years, my capacity and interest in reading would take quantum leaps. This was in part due to our local librarian. Our town library was one 750 square foot room. During my very first visit, she made it clear that I was welcomed. She expressed sincere interest in me as a curious child. She asked questions about my interests and my hopes and dreams. She shared the books that were in her possession and ordered ones she thought would be of interest.

Within months I realized that books could open new worlds. I could be transported into the mind of an author in a matter of seconds. I was hooked and my life was forever changed. As a teenager you could frequently find me in a corner reading a book. Libraries and bookstores became places of promise and solace. I remain in awe of the ways in which reading allows me to be lost and found simultaneously. By the time I was 12, I realized that reading was the path to transformation. The scripture, Romans 12:2 “be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind” took on a profound meaning and became my mantra for life.

Over the years, I would have many encounters with books that would open my mind and shift my perspectives on life itself. One such experience happened when I was 17. I was working with my father after graduating from high school a year early. On one of my visits to his place, I noticed Albert Camus, The Plague. Within seconds, I was captivated. The book was required reading for a college class that my father was taking. After he finished his assignment, I borrowed it. After reading it, I was determined to go to college. Over the coming months, I would do research on schools and by the Fall, I was enrolled.

In my freshman year, I became interested in the self help genre by reading Wayne Dyer’s, Your Erroneous Zones. As a result, I decided to study psychology. I was curious about what behaviors and mindsets differentiated successful people from others.

Throughout my life, reading has nurtured me, informed my curiosity and expanded my mind. At one point, I was ordering so many books from Amazon that the UPS driver knew my name. Books speak to me. By picking one up, I can get a glimpse into the mind of an author. In that moment, time stands still and my world expands. Today, you can still find me in a corner reading a book. I suspect that will always be the case. I am forever grateful to the teachers and librarians who gave me a lifelong passport to learning!

Inspired by the Book: A Constant Rotation of Nonfiction, Classics, Contemporary Fiction, and Travel Writing

Inspired by the Book is a series of interviews with Connecticut College folks about their literary lives. Inspiration comes from The New York Times Book Review series called By the Book.

Lyndsay works in the library as the art librarian and director of digital scholarship, and teaches an art history class at Conn called “Art Crimes and the Value of Art.” The arrival of her son during the pandemic gave her a new perspective on free time, and she began to devote most of it to reading all the kinds of books she had missed out on while in graduate school for art history. When she’s not working on her daily page goals, she loves caring for her garden plants and house in New London.

What books are on your night stand?

I’m currently reading Ukraine in Histories and Stories: Essays by Ukrainian Intellectuals, edited by Volodomyr Yermolenko. My #tbr stack is an anxiety-provoking 21 books deep right now:

What’s the last great book you read?

There’s no way I can pick one! 

Lately I’ve read several books on Ukraine, and I’ve long been a fan of books on Russia. I highly recommend Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev–the diary format is really effective at giving you a palpable sense of the uncertainty and confusion inherent in the day-by-day experience of living through a major event–in this case, from the beginning of the Euromaidan in 2013 through Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbas. I also just finished Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Took on the West, which is an amazing-but-horrifying, meticulously researched account of the many schemes carried out by Russian oligarchs and people high up in the Kremlin since the fall of the Soviet Union, 1) to maintain unimaginable wealth and power, and 2) to funnel black cash into Europe and America with the aim of corrupting politicians and degrading the integrity of institutions. It’s a serious commitment of a book, but worth it. 

Other fantastic non-fiction I’ve read since the new year: Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, and Erika Fatland’s Sovietistan: Travels in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

Fiction-wise, this year I’ve loved T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Klune is creating an exciting new array of memorable stories and really loveable characters. Kingsolver has an awe-inspiring command of her craft.

Whom do you consider among the best writers working today?

Masha Gessen, Gary Shteyngart, Olga Tokarczuk, Barbara Kingsolver, Madeline Miller, Erika Fatland.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

I’m working on reading all of the Brontë sisters’ novels and a sampling of Russian classics.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

In this moment, maybe Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy.

What’s your favorite book no one has heard of?

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. She’s a Nobel Prize winning author, so she’s certainly well-known by many, but I haven’t heard other Americans talking about this book.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? Any which you avoid?

I like a constant rotation of nonfiction, classics, contemporary fiction, and travel writing. I haven’t had much interest in sci-fi or fantasy, but I’m willing to give those genres a try. I’ll take recommendations!

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I grew up during the era of 90s YA pulp horror fiction–the Fear Street series, Christopher Pike, Richie Tankersley Cusick, etc.. I read every Fear Street book and still have my complete collection on my bookshelves.

How do you organize your books?

They’re loosely organized by genre and geographic region. I especially love the bookshelf devoted to language-learning textbooks and dictionaries, travel guides, and travel writing.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures, or comfort reads?

Guilty pleasures: Joanne Harris’s Chocolat and some of her other books. I fell in love with her writing when I was a Francophile in high school.

Comfort reads: any travel writing or memoirs about living in the European countryside.

Disappointed, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? 

Recently, I really disliked Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The machismo is just too gross to read in the current sociopolitical climate. About halfway through, I began to hope that the main character would die by the end. And, well…

What question would you like to see added to this list? And what’s your response?

Do you have a Goodreads account?

Yes! Follow me there.

Inspired by the Book: A Russian Translation of Conan the Barbarian

Inspired by the Book is a series of interviews with Connecticut College folks about their literary lives. Inspiration comes from The New York Times Book Review series called By the Book.

Chris Colbath. Born and raised in the greater Seattle area. Studied Russian literature for a long time, plus some other stuff. Lover of big riffs, good books. Dog lover. Family man. Renaissance man—if the Renaissance were born in a dive bar in Groton and not in, like, Florence.

What’s the last great book you read?

Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts

Who is your favorite novelist of all time?

Tolstoy at his best is pretty hard to beat. And I don’t just mean Resurrection.

Was there a book that particularly inspired you?

Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke. It works as fiction, creative non-fiction… A book for everybody, every time.

Was there an author who particularly inspired you?

Andrei Bely, who was a truly experimental writer. As alchemy and the other sciences teach us, most experiments result in failure. Most of Bely’s certainly did. But one success makes it all worthwhile.

What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

Andrei Bely’s Petersburg

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

Some bibliographic scars from grad school are still there: Foucault, Derrida, that kind of thing. I guess it’s I who am surprised they haven’t been removed yet.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Good stuff.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

Maybe the “Copendium” by Julian Cope. His excellent taste in music makes up for any writerly excesses. In my house, the record shelves are as important as the book shelves, and his Head Heritage series has greatly enriched the former.

What book, if any, most influenced your decision to become… [fill in the blank]?

A Russian translation of Conan the Barbarian made me want to play bass in a rock band. And now I’m doin’ it. Books are magic.

Are there economists whose writing you especially admire?

Not really, but I am fond of President George H. W. Bush’s term “voodoo economics,” which I view as having the broadest possible applications. And so, I can imagine admiring any economist who dressed and acted the part of a proper witch doctor.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

Captain Kopeikin is actually Napoleon!

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three authors, dead or alive, do you invite?

I’d like to invite both drunk Stephen King and AA Stephen King, watch them fight. Someone like Philip K. Dick could referee.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

Being embarrassed by things I have done is a full-time job. No time to be embarrassed by things I haven’t done.

Do you think any canonical books are widely misunderstood?

Probably all of them.

How do you organize your books?

A combination of quality, subject matter, color and size.

What book should everyone read before the age of 21?

Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy

What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

Maybe Anna Karenina. Which is why I assign it to college students at every opportunity.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures, or comfort reads?

There is no true pleasure without overwhelming guilt. I’m with my Catholic friends on that one. And on the demonic-possession thing, too.

Disappointed, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. What a colossal yawner. It’s hard not to indulge in lost-time jokes here. Everyone should start this monster 1) because the beginning is actually pretty good, and 2) to have the pleasure of quitting it. I read about 80% of it (like, ten thousand pages) and then retired it for good. And I almost always finish stuff. Retiring it forever was deeply satisfying.

What do you plan to read next?

My email, sadly.

Inspired by the Book: Mostly Trees

Inspired by the Book is a series of interviews with Connecticut College folks about their literary lives. Inspiration comes from The New York Times Book Review series called By the Book.

Maggie Redfern is associate director of the Connecticut College Arboretum. She loves big old trees, growing trees from seed and leading walking tours focused on the importance of native trees. She hasn’t authored any books yet.

What books are on your night stand?

My “to read” list is a long one and people are always recommending more books! My current pile includes World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil; Rachel Carson’s The Sea Trilogy which compiles three of her books on maritime ecology; Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape; and Kim Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. The current issue of The New Yorker is also there.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Winter is a great time to read. The days are so short, there isn’t much in the garden that needs tending and the water is too cold to go swimming. I love to sit in front of the fire in a comfortable chair and dive in. The fire is conducive to letting my mind focus on the book.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading?

Anything that expands my knowledge of trees and the environment. Although there are many non-fiction books about trees, those that I am most interested in are the ones that are so well researched and read almost like a novel or memoirs that weave in natural history. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Andrea Wulf’s Brother Gardeners; Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Mathai, The Star Thrower by Loren Eisley, and most recently Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake – which I just happened to be reading when it was announced as a National Book Award Winner. Last winter I saw Tiya speak through a Zoom program on pecan trees presented by the Arnold Arboretum. And then just recently I noticed her book on the new books shelf in Shain Library. It is such a delight to read, so many interests combined from textiles and pecans to women’s history and the missing voices in our archives.

 What’s the last great novel you read?

The Overstory by Richard Powers. Fiction set amongst the trees. Telling history over a long time, a tree’s time and connecting the human characters with the trees. Although fiction, it is based on several real life people and many species of real life trees.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

I might be stretching the definition of classic but I finally read The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. It came up during an early pandemic reading group focused on Michelle Neely’s Against Sustainability. Published in 1993, it takes the form of a diary written beginning in 2024. I don’t usually read much science fiction but post-apocalyptic novels that project a future based on human impacts to the environment draw me in. Plus it’s set in a California where no one drives on the freeway, instead they walk. Although they are fleeing their homes and have lost nearly everything. And our protagonist, Lauren, fled her home with a survival pack including seeds to plant in the future and a land ethic to fertilize the soul. 

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

Canopy biologist Meg Lowman’s Arbornaut (like astronaut but in the trees not space) proclaims that half of land-based plants, insects and animals live in our treetops. Foresters used to only walk on the ground to study trees and they only knew what was on top when they cut the tree down so we never had thorough knowledge of the whole tree or what was living in it. Lowman developed techniques for getting to the tree tops to study life up there where there are still many more species to discover, most are microscopic but they all contribute to the web of life.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

Wild Gardener in the Wild Landscape of which very few print copies remain available. Fortunately the amazing reference staff at Shain Library helped me to digitize it and make it available on Internet Archive.

Which writers—novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets—working today do you admire most?

Anyone who can change culture for the better. I’m thinking of Doug Tallamy and the few books he has written that have influenced a shift from planting exotic ornamental plants to growing native and restoring our landscape to be ecologically beneficial. He makes a compelling case for how an individual can make a difference. (Hint: everyone should plant an oak tree!)

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three authors, dead or alive, do you invite?

Peter Del Tredici, botanist and author of Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide; William A. Niering, ecologist who amongst other things spent his career at Connecticut College and created the Smaller American Lawns Today movement; and Rebecca Solnit, author, environmentalist, placemaker, and climate optimist.

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