After reading the which books most changed the minds of twelve scholars interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the faculty on the 4th floor of JRC came up with their own list. Our final considerations of the book that “profoundly altered the way we regard ourselves, our work, the world.”
Dr. Kelly Donahue – Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
As an undergraduate history major taking my first class about a history that was neither American nor European, I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. While I had not resented the so-called “non-western” requirement, I had not been particularly passionate about it either. Reading Achebe’s work sparked a profound interest in European imperialism in Africa in the 19th century and onward. For the first time, I was forced to think about imperialism not only from the point of view of the colonized but to see the totality of its influence on said societies and peoples. Imperialism from then on was no longer an abstract concept or a list of reasons why Europeans might want empires, it was a system that had altered the whole course of world history.
Macaria; Or, Altars of Sacrifice by Augusta Jane Evans and Life of Pi by Yann Martel are two books that have influenced my thinking; Macaria provided the “aha” moment in forging ahead with my dissertation and Life of Pi has shaped how I think about the stories we tell about ourselves.
As I worked on my dissertation about popular 19th century American women writers and the coming of the Civil War, I knew that these writers used fiction to engage in politics; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin provided plenty of evidence of political engagement. But the much less well-known Macaria provided even better evidence for my thesis. Augusta Jane Evans was an ardent Confederate. Her papers in the Library of Congress include her correspondence with General Beauregard during and after the war. The novel, published in 1864, featured women willing to sacrifice everything to preserve their society. As Evans has her characters engage in sacrifice after sacrifice, she provides a critique of liberal democracy and for me that was THE MOMENT! Are these novels simply sentimental constructions of domesticity? Nope. Not only did these women writers take on the issue of slavery in their novels, but they used their novels to engage in debate about political theory and the identity of the nation.
If you ask any teacher what they love about teaching, they will likely tell you that they love teaching because they are always learning; teachers are always learning new subjects and more importantly, teachers are always learning from their students. When I taught at Baylor, I co-taught a capstone course for seniors on coming-of-age novels. What an amazing experience! I hadn’t read Life of Pi, but reading it and understanding it well enough to facilitate discussion and listening to my students’ reaction to the novel has had a profound influence on how I think about the stories we tell about ourselves. I haven’t seen the movie that came out a few years ago and so I don’t know how well the movie follows then novel. The novel is very much about storytelling. In the first section of the novel, Pi is a deeply spiritual kid who investigates Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. In class discussions at Baylor (Baylor is the world’s largest Baptist university) about this first part of the book, I really came to understand fundamentalist Christianity. The rest of the book recounts Pi’s journey in a life raft across the Pacific with a tiger on board and a the subsequent investigation when he washed ashore in Mexico. What really happened to Pi? What story does Pi tell? What is the better story? These questions resonated with the graduating seniors in the class. What was their story? Were they scared 20somethings wandering away from the Baylor “bubble”? Or were they on the verge of an exciting adventure, really independent for the first time in their lives? And, of course, as we discussed the students’ lives, I reflected on my own story. What story do I tell? Is it the better story?
I hated everything about the idea of reading The House of Spirits for my Latin American Literature class during my junior year of college. The books is a very romantic family saga set in Chile during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Not only did I always try to avoid all things sentimental, I also tried to avoid reading in any language other than English. And to make matters worse, the book was famous for its use of magical realism. Each of these hated elements were precisely what stretched my thinking. The turbulent history of Chile meant more than regime change when understood through the relations of a family across generations. Even more profound was understanding Chile’s history in its native language; cultural references and expressions of love and power took on a new intensity and significance in Spanish. Finally, the ability to consider, if even for a fleeting moment, in the supernatural was a leap of faith that illustrated how I could accept a reality that was completely outside of my comfort zone. These elements took on new relevance when I moved to Latin America to study nineteenth-century history and had to rely on family tales, research in a foreign language, and accept a historical reality that seemed to defy the laws of nature. In short, what I initially hated about The House of Spirits were all the things that profoundly altered the way I thought, and worked, and understood the world.