What I’m Reading:
David Waldstreicher

July 11th, 2009 by EVENTS

And what does a history professor with a Ph.D. in American Studies do as soon as he finishes teaching summer session? Well, besides the inevitable yard work, I start more books than I can finish anytime soon, and as many of them outside my scholarly cul-de-sacs as possible. Here’s a small backpack of books I’ve been excited to begin, am enjoying, and will hopefully finish soon so I can begin some more.

Civic War and the Corruption of the Citizen by Peter Meyers

This is a bracing, learned meditation on the “ war on terror” as a means by which we have become passive citizens. Conceived before the enthusiasms of the Obama campaign, it is striking me as right on target about the bigger picture, a work at once deeply theoretical yet historically informed. I like to think I’d have tried to write a book like this if I had studied more political theory.

Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People by Dana Nelson

This is a history and a manifesto by a brilliant literary critic who has immersed herself in the historical and political science literature on the presidency. Nelson deftly weaves the symbolic dimensions of the presidency into the actual policy outcomes. Rather than blaming the Reaganites, or FDR, or Lincoln, she rightly sees this as a problem rooted in our desire, going back to George Washington, for leaders who will save us from the hard work of engagement, disagreement, and organizing. I’m hoping that this refreshingly jargon-free book is a harbinger of the future in politics and scholarship, because it gives me hope for interdisciplinarity as well as democracy.

Local Visitations: Poems by Stephen Dunn

This isn’t Dunn’s most recent volume of poems; I’m still catching up. But it is vintage Dunn. If you like your poets knowing, lyrical, middle-aged and self-deprecating (think William Matthews), you’ll like Dunn. He does get political sometimes, too (“Plato was right: so difficult to govern with poets around.”) The kicker in this volume is section composed of poems about great nineteenth century writers finding themselves in various contemporary South new Jersey towns (“Twain in Atlantic City,” “Jane Austen in Egg Harbor,” “Dostoevesky in Wildwood.”) Having spent some time in college with these writers, and some time with my family in these towns, it hits me where I live and read.

Absurdistan: A Novel by Gary Shteyngart

This is the second novel by the great poet/satirist of the Russian Jewish diaspora. No one is spared but you end up loving his characters anyway. Think Mark Twain meets Sascha Baron Cohen. Or Phillip Roth if his grandparents and parents had ended up in Leningrad instead of Newark.

The Trial in American Life by Robert A. Ferguson

An historical poetics of the American courtroom – in particular the high-profile trials that have come to mean so much in our culture and politics, by a veteran student of law and literature. Aaron Burr, John Brown, the Rosenbergs, Haymarket, Mary Surratt, and a little O.J. too. Almost impossibly eloquent, and a great read. Compassionate toward participants and audiences, Ferguson refuses to condescend to the past, to tell us a reassuring story of either progress, or to lament a lost purity. The kind of book that is worth a shelf of other books.

David Waldstreicher is the author of Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification, new this June from Hill & Wang. He teaches history at Temple University.

Posted in Book Lists

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