Shelf-indulgence: What professors are reading

Feb. 20, 2018, 1:55 p.m.

The Stanford Daily sat down with three members of Stanford staff — Sarah Ogilvie, Raymond Kania and Elaine Treharne — to discuss their current and future reading preferences. Ogilvie is a social science research fellow in the department of linguistics and the director of the digital humanities minor. Kania is a former postdoctoral teaching fellow and lecturer in the Thinking Matters program and a current member of the staff in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Treharne is the Roberta Bowman Denning Professor and Professor, by courtesy, of German Studies. This is the first in a series of articles interviewing Stanford faculty about novels, journals and research materials.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What are your five favorite books on your bookshelf right now? What appeals to you about them?

Sarah Ogilvie (SO): Right now I am reading James Baldwin’s “Another Country” (1962) – Baldwin is the bravest author I have read, and in this novel he does not shy away from anything. The reader is taken to places deep inside them, relating to desire, regret, disappointment and death. The language and music in the novel are fantastic – many of the African-American words ([of the] late 1950s) are only just becoming mainstream now. As someone who is fairly new to America, this book is also giving me important insights into this country’s racial and political tensions. Next, I am going to read a biography of Baldwin, by David Leeming, recommended by Michele Elam.

This year, I am a Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, and on my bookshelf at the moment are works relating to my current research projects: Niall Ferguson’s “The Square and the Tower” (2018) is interesting because I have been working on networks for a long time, and am currently applying network analysis and graph theory to thousands of lexicographers (dictionary-writers) in the nineteenth century; Sali Tagliamonte’s “Teen Talk” (2017) relates to my research on the language of the iGeneration (people born after 1992); and Margaret Murray’s “My First Hundred Years” (1963), the memoir she wrote when she turned 100, is a delight. Murray was a great feminist and one of the first female archaeologists; she features in my project on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. For pleasure, I am also reading “Teotihuacan: City of Fire,” catalog essays based on Matthew Robb’s superb current exhibition at the de Young.

Raymond Kania (RK):

  1. Richard Cook and Brian Morton, “The Penguin Jazz Guide to Jazz Recordings” — This is the best kind of reference book: very readable, and browsing through it always renews my interests in the subject.
  2. Stephen Greenblatt, “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” — This book explores the influence of one of the great works of the ancient world, Lucretius’ “The Nature of Things.” Stories about how ancient works managed to survive to be rediscovered in the modern world are generally fascinating.
  3. “The Secret Life of Puppets” (Victoria Nelson) — An interpretation of modern, popular culture that situates familiar, stories, books and films vis-à-vis the history of philosophy and religion. This book (and others like it) can change the way you see everything.
  4. “Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination” (Paul Veyne) — This succinct, elegant work of scholarship demonstrates how a seemingly straightforward thing we take for granted – what it means to believe in something – might work very differently for different peoples.
  5. Jason Zinoman, “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night” — This was an experience of self-archaeology. Watching Letterman as a kid influenced (or warped) me in ways I didn’t realize until I read this book.

Elaine Treharne (ET):

  1. Edwidge Danticat, “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story” — I read this in October, as my own mother faced terminal illness. I found it unsentimental, thoughtful, engaging and memorable.
  2. David Jones, “Anathemata” — This novel-length poem is always near me. I wrestle with its dense, imaginative, originary myth-making.
  3. Arlette Farge, “The Allure of the Archives” — Although this is a book (in translation) that I set for my Archives graduate class, it’s a jolly good description, and call for reimagining, of the cultural record.
  4. Neil Gaiman, “Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances” — The introduction to this volume is a must-read, particularly in today’s world of safe spaces and thinking about who gets to practice freedom of speech. I’d like to read on in the book, but I’m afraid of the dark, as it is.
  5. My latest Moleskine notebook — I have box loads of filled-up Moleskines. The one I’m working in is always my favorite: full of ideas I’m hoping I get time, one day, to expand into projects.


TSD: What captures your imagination in a book?

SO: James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, and then you read.”

RK: Maps, of places real or imaginary, and anything that explores the origin or history of ideas.

ET: Language. Evocative, rich language, which demonstrates an author’s ability to wrestle words into revelation. This could be poetry or prose. Here’s a favorite from William Faulkner’s “Light in August”: “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” We could all fruitfully spend time working through this.


TSD: What books or genre do you consider your guilty pleasure?

SO: “The Moomins” – the Finnish writer, Tove Jansson, wrote a series of children’s books featuring creatures called the Moomins; but really these books are wonderful for people of all ages.

RK: I enjoy spy novels, especially the works of John Le Carre (though I don’t feel terribly guilty about it).

ET: Given how many books I have to read for research purposes, for review, for teaching and for other colleagues, any novel that is for pleasure makes me guilty!


TSD: What’s one book that you often come back to?

SO: I think this would have to be my Berkeley colleague Leanne Hinton’s “Flutes of Fire: Essays on Californian Indian Languages.” This was an important work in establishing this field of study and reviving endangered Californian languages by a wonderful linguist.

RK: “This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress” (collected essays by various authors): Lots of food for thought here.

ET: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s “In Praise of Shadows,” published in 1933 and focused on Japanese culture and aesthetics. It is completely absorbing.


These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

A previous version of this article misstated that Sarah Ogilvie was a residential scholar. 


Contact Claire Francis at claire97 ‘at’


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