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Faculty Pick a Favorite Book in Their Field

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Sometimes a book stays with you. Maybe it inspires you to dig deeper, or explains a complicated concept with stunning clarity, or muddies the waters so provocatively that you’re compelled to read on. We asked faculty across the College to recommend a favorite book related to their field, stipulating that it be something a non-expert could enjoy. Here are their picks.

Catherine Connors, UW Dept of Classics
Catherine Connors, Professor and Chair, Department of Classics

Connors, whose research explores how the Romans represented geography and nature in their literature, suggests The Appian Way: Ghost Road, Queen of Roads by Robert A. Kaster. Connors recalls walking along the Appian Way in Rome with UW students, describing it as “a rather hot and arduous adventure, to tread on the dark stones worn smooth by centuries of footsteps, to get the dust of the past under our fingernails.” She describes Kaster’s book as a “genial guided tour of Rome’s greatest road, which gives every reader the chance to take this trip into the past and see the many people who have left their mark on the landscape over the centuries." Quoting Kastner, Connors says, "A traveller does not need much imagination to feel the ghosts brush by.’”

Valerie Curtis-Newton, UW School of Drama
Valerie Curtis-Newton, Professor in Acting and Directing and Head of Performance, School of Drama

As a theater director, Curtis-Newton is always striving to create the most potent experience possible for audiences. She has found the ideas in Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown, to be “profoundly impactful” in her work. “The most daunting obstacles to fully engaged performance (creativity) are fear, guilt, and shame,” says Curtis-Newton. “Dr. Brown articulates a way of moving through these obstacles. It is excellent reading for those in the performing arts and anyone else interested in achieving with less sturm und drang.” Curtis-Newton also recommends Anne Bogart’s What’s The Story?: Essays on Art, Theater and Storytelling, which explores the storytelling impulse and shares how the author and others connect audiences with stories.

Carina Courie, UW Department of Philosophy
Carina Fourie, Benjamin Rabinowitz Assistant Professor in Medical Ethics, Department of Philosophy

In her research on health inequalities and why they might be unjust, Fourie finds that while unequal access to health care is a factor in health injustice, we sometimes underestimate other social factors. She recommends the book The Status Syndrome How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, by Michael Marmot, as an eye-opener in understanding the social determinants of health. “Based on decades of research, Marmot’s work indicates that higher social status, functioning through a variety of social mechanisms such as autonomy in the workplace, has a positive impact on health, even when access to health care is equal,” says Fourie. “Social structure, not simply biology or risky lifestyles, can determine our health in a range of ways which includes but is not limited to our access to health care."

Chris Hamm, UW Department of Asian Languages and Literature
Chris Hamm, Associate Professor, Department of Asian Languages and Literature

Hamm, whose specialty is modern Chinese literature, is particularly fascinated by “the ruptures and continuities between China’s determinedly iconoclastic modern fiction and its rich pre-modern heritage of fictional writings.” A book that he keeps coming back to is a sixteenth-century novel attributed to Shi Nai'an that goes by various titles in English:  The Water Margin, Outlaws of the Marsh, The Marshes of Mount Liang, or All Men Are Brothers. “Hardly a ‘novel’ in the current sense, it’s a sprawling narrative cycle about a band of outlaws in Song dynasty China,” explains Hamm. “It draws you into medieval Chinese life in a gripping, visceral way, while at the same time functioning as myth and allegory. It’s easy to see it as the ancestor of modern masters such as the Nobel laureate Mo Yan.”

Ron Irving, UW Department of Mathematics
Ron Irving, Professor and Chair, Department of Mathematics

"Despite an early interest in mathematics, I didn’t devote myself to it until I received Irving Adler's The Giant Golden Book of Mathematics for my eighth birthday,” recalls Irving. For adults, he recommends Imre Lakatos’s Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery, published in 1976. "Through an extended dialogue between a teacher and a group of students, Lakatos examines what constitutes a proof of a classic eighteenth-century theorem," says Irving. "The reader comes to see that when a proof is sufficiently complex, mutual assent of the community may replace formal verification of all the deductive steps, opening the door to error." Irving adds that some leading mathematicians today, concerned that complex proofs cannot be reliably checked by people, are working toward new foundations that permit computer verification.”

Sarah Keller, UW Department of Chemistry
Sarah Keller, Professor, Department of Chemistry

Keller, a biophysicist who investigates simplified versions of cell membranes, says that students in her lab — undergrads through PhD students — are particularly successful when they bring a “body of creativity rather than a body of knowledge” to their research. With that in mind, Keller suggests MAKE: magazine. “I love paging through issues of MAKE: because it is filled with inspiring examples of ordinary people using tools around them to make fantastically creative things,” she says. “In my house, a few copies live in the bathroom. One day, when my daughter was 8, she spent an extra half-hour in the loo and, upon emerging, announced, ‘I want a quadcopter!’ My partner and I smiled at each other; we knew what she had been reading and we had absolute confirmation that we’d made someone who thinks like us.”

Christopher Parker, UW Department of Political Science
Christopher Parker, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science

Parker, who studies the role of race in American politics, offers a few suggestions. “Of course I’d suggest my book, Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America,” Parker says before suggesting two others about politics and race, both published in 2014: Dog Whistle Politics by Ian Haney-Lopez, a sweeping account of how politicians and plutocrats use veiled racial appeals to persuade white voters to support policies that threaten their own interests; and Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America by Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos, which traces the roots of political polarization and economic inequality back to the shifting racial geography of American politics in the 1960s.

Micael Vaughan, UW Department of English and Comparative Literature
Míċeál Vaughan, Professor, Departments of English and Comparative Literature

Given his long interest in medieval literature, Vaughan would choose Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English, but since he finds modern translations lacking, he suggests Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. “It’s essentially a Sherlock-Holmesian detective story set in the midst of medieval theological disputes, a monastic library, the Inquisition—and involving a lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics,” says Vaughan. “As someone who likes to browse in libraries and archives and whose researches there often lead to dead ends—or attractive tangents—I found Eco’s postmodern novel a lively and realistic depiction of complex institutions, characters and histories in fourteenth-century Europe.  He provides an attractive introduction to the historical and ideological complexities attending the transmission of ancient and medieval works to our own day.”