Books as refuge: What Yale professors are reading during the pandemic

Stone carving of  William Shakespeare.
Grotesque of William Shakespeare outside Sterling Memorial Library.

Whether they’re holed up at home or working on the frontlines, people crave diversions from the unfolding crisis. Many turn to streaming services to catch a superhero blockbuster or follow the travails of the shameless miscreants of “Tiger King,” the popular Netflix docu-series about big-cat breeding. Others prefer to switch off their screens and dive into a good book.

YaleNews recently contacted a variety of faculty members to learn what they’ve been reading, whether to make sense of these trying times or to briefly escape them through a bit of thought-provoking prose.

More than a dozen professors shared a diverse selection of reading material, ranging from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” to histories of the Black Death to the origins of K-Pop, the popular music genre from South Korea. Their responses, listed here in no particular order, are lightly edited and condensed.

Alice Kaplan, Sterling Professor of French

I’m reading Maurice Samuels’ “The Betrayal of the Duchess,” out this month from Basic Books. Full disclosure: Maurie is my colleague in the French Department. Together we teach a lecture course on the modern French novel.

The Betrayal of the Duchess” is about the larger-than-life (at 4 foot, 7 inches) Duchesse de Berry, who mounted an army to bring the Bourbon dynasty back into power in France. Simon Deutz, the Jewish convert who counseled, then betrayed her, is an equally fascinating foil to this improbable heroine.

Maurice Samuels puts us right back in 19th-century France.  Here's a scene from the terrible cholera epidemic of 1832:

March 29, 1832 was a beautiful spring day, one of the first nice days of the year. After the long Parisian winter, residents of the French capital hung up their heavy coats, like so many molting animals, and crowded the boulevards in search of sun and spectacle. Some wore masks to celebrate Mi-Carême, a Lenten carnival similar to Mardi Gras. Heinrich Heine, the great German writer who had moved to Paris the preceding year, recounts that the throngs who packed the costume balls that night danced with a feverish intensity. Suddenly, one of the merriest of the revelers, disguised as a harlequin, felt his legs grow cold. When he removed his mask, everyone gasped. His face had turned blue.

How could I not relate to the confinement, the leg stretching, the encroaching epidemic? On the book flap, I’ve written, “March 1832- March 2020.”

David Blight, Sterling Professor of American History

I always keep Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and William James’ collected essays, especially those on pragmatism, nearby. I have been sending my students in my lecture course Whitman poems, especially “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” because of what it says so poignantly about our “distance” from other people we are so close to, as well as what it says about human curiosity. I also have read in full and sent students Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” It is one of the greatest poems ever written on the meaning of mourning, especially collective mourning. It is Whitman's immortal tribute to Lincoln, but even more, it is his imagining of the slain president’s funeral train in April 1865, traveling across the country to Springfield, Ill. The “warbling” thrush, singing in the bush, to Whitman seems to capture the meaning of the death more nobly in its songs than we humans can.

With James, one can always find the moving and brilliant discussion of pragmatism as the quest for the open mind, for pluralism, for essential humility. “The only enemy of any one of my truths is the rest of my truths” is one of James’ best lines.

Robert Shiller, Sterling Professor of Economics

One thought I have had recently is to recall Amartya Sen’s 1981 book “Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.” Although this book is about famines, not epidemics, I am reminded of how human society handles such crises. People who are of high social standing survive these events much better. Those lacking status mostly just quietly accept the death that comes to many of them. The pain of the present crisis so far has not been shared equally. I hope that this crisis will make us all rethink our society’s values.

Frances McCall Rosenbluth, the Damon Wells Professor of Political Science

Ian Shapiro [Sterling Professor of Political Science] and I have been “reading” George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and Elizabeth Gaskell novels through Audible books every afternoon when we take our dogs out for long walks on the back side of Sleeping Giant, far away from other people. (Gaskell was a great find — thank you Professor of English Stefanie Markovitz!) It is as close to therapy as I can imagine — a combination of Thoreau’s life on Walden Pond with the warmth and uplifting good humor of those humanist authors.

Priyamvada Natarajan, professor of astronomy; director of the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities

I just finished reading Giovanni Boccacio’s “The Decameron,” which is rather apt for the current apocalyptic, dystopian time. It is essentially a collection of 100 stories from 14th-century Italy told by a group of seven women and three men who are sheltering (staying home!) in a villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death (the epidemic of 1348). The stories are wonderful — some comic, some tragic, some absurd, and some magical. The original is in vernacular Florentine Italian. I read it in translation, of course!

Paul Freedman, the Chester D. Tripp Professor of History

I've been reading “The Black Death: A Personal History” by John Hatcher, a book assigned for the course I am currently teaching on the history of the Middle Ages. Hatcher is a leading medieval historian and this is a lightly fictionalized account of the arrival of the plague of 1348-1349 in an English village. Of course this epidemic was much worse than the current one: A mortality rate of 80% meant that nearly half the population of Europe died. There are some of the same reactions, however: fear at hearing about it first in distant and then not-so-distant places; hope and denial (It couldn't cross the English Channel, could it?), religious responses, but also a live-for-today recklessness. The first thing this village ordered as a way of placating God's wrath was to prohibit wrestling matches in the churchyard. It arrived nonetheless: “As the bells of St. Mary's tolled almost without ceasing, it seemed that all humankind would perish and the whole world would soon come to an end.”

Laurie Santos, professor of psychology; head of Silliman College

I've been re-reading “The Stoic Challenge” by the philosopher Bill Irvine. The main thesis is that we can view bad things in our life as a challenge to be overcome rather than a crisis to be endured. It’s the perfect call to arms for a tough time like we’re experiencing, but it gives you hope that a stoic outlook on life can help.

David Skelly, the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology; director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

I almost never read fiction and I alternate between reading nonfiction about science and history. For history, I tend to focus on late medieval and early modern history of Europe, and colonial and early federal history of the United States. (I minored in medieval history in college.) Despite seeming kind of heavy, reading about history is how I escape.

Right now I’m reading “The Borgias: The Hidden History” by G.J Meyer, one of my favorite popular history writers. It’s all there: famine, plague, war, political deceit, etc. Despite the turmoil and adversity, the people in this era were remarkably resilient and, frankly, unstoppable. I find that inspiring even if the sausage making is a bit unseemly to watch sometimes.

Grace Kao, the IBM Professor of Sociology; chair of the Department of Sociology

I’m working on a syllabus for a first-year seminar that I’m planning to teach in Spring 2021, tentatively titled “Race and Place in the British New Wave, K-Pop, and Beyond.” As a result, I've been reading books about New Wave Music in the 1980s (which coincides with my adolescent years) as well as watching BTS videos — “BTS” is a South Korean boy band — and learning about K-Pop. One book contrasts New Wave music in the United States and United Kingdom. It examines how MTV helped to define the genre’s traits as electronic and emotionally detached music largely produced and consumed by white youth. It’s a curious time — there were months during the early 1980s in which more than half of Billboard's Top 100 songs were by New Wave bands from the UK. As an amateur guitarist, I have always found music to be comforting, and especially so during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jacob Hacker, the Stanley Resor Professor of Political Science; director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies

I’ve been reading through a stack of “books I should have read earlier” and so far, the one that’s brought me the most insight and intellectual pleasure is Sterling Professor of Political Science Jim Scott’s brilliant 2017 retelling of the history of the earliest states, “Against the Grain.” Jim is, of course, a scholarly giant, but what’s less appreciated is how funny he is. Some years back, when his Agrarian Studies Center was part of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, he delivered to my office a dozen eggs from his own hens, with “feudal dues” written on the carton. Alas, the part of the book I found most relevant to our present crisis was not funny (though it does involve chickens). In his discussion of how early states often fell to disease outbreaks, Jim presciently writes, “Southeast China …, probably the largest, most crowded, and historically deepest concentration of Homo sapiens, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks, and wild animal markets in the world, has been a major world petri dish for the incubation of new strains of bird and swine flu.”

Crystal Feimster, associate professor of African American studies, history, and American studies

Beyond the readings for my courses, I have only managed to return to a few of my favorite poems. One in particular that I have in a frame on my desk, “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, seems sadly appropriate for the moment we find ourselves:

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

(Read the full poem on the Poetry Foundation’s website.)

David Evans, professor of earth & planetary sciences, head of Berkeley College

Because I tend to start but not finish my books for pleasure, I'm currently reading three — all of which are appropriate to the current times: “Yale Needs Women: How the First Group of Girls Rewrote the Rules of an Ivy League Giant” (Sourcebooks) by Anne Gardiner Perkins ’81; “A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future” (Yale University Press) edited by Professor Daniel Esty; and “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present” (Yale University Press) by Frank Snowden, the Andrew Downey Orrick Professor Emeritus of History & History of Medicine. The latter was published in 2019, so “present” must now be taken in a slightly different context.

Katie Trumpener, the Emily Sanford Professor of Comparative Literature, professor of English

One book I read during spring break was Kadya Molodovsky’s “A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg’s Journal.” It’s an autobiographically-tinged novel originally published in Yiddish in 1941, recently translated by Anita Norich, who’s teaching a Yiddish literature course this semester at Yale.

I’m interested in everyday life during times of war and crisis — and in a way that’s what the novel is about. When the Germans occupy the Polish city of Lublin at the start of WWII, a young Polish-Jewish refugee flees to New York. Her mother has been killed in Poland; she doesn’t initially know the whereabouts of her father or brother, and the relatives she lands with seem very cut off from what is happening in Europe. She herself is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress as well as culture shock, and as she constantly records in her diary, her efforts to be open to new people and experiences in New York are overlaid by mourning, loss, and guilt that she has survived.

On one level, this is quite a simple novel, but it’s also wily; the reader too gets caught up in present-day NYC events, and keeps forgetting about the tragic backstory. And yet for the protagonist, the levels of denial of the NYC-based community just isn’t possible, and bits of the present-day New York story are presented through a scrim of past and parallel events elsewhere. She’s trying to survive and go on, but she’s also frequently angry at how little those around her know or apparently care about the situation in Europe.

Somehow this was very comforting to read in the first strange days of the pandemic, as the danger moved closer, but was still largely invisible, as some people were loading up their grocery carts in anticipation while others were still in denial that it could possibly ever affect or touch them.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324