One of the nice things about being an adult is you can enjoy the back-to-school season without having to go back to school. But one of the best parts of school is discovering good books, so I asked Washingtonians for suggestions in various subjects–books that continue to inspire them. Think of it as a curriculum you can look forward to–all electives and no homework.
Washington Post writer Joel Garreau's new book is Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies–and What It Means to Be Human, which he sums up as "a series of reports about the future of human nature in our lifetimes." He answered my request with a short syllabus on "cussedness" in literature.
"The most optimistic scenario in my book is called 'Prevail,' " Garreau says. "It's basically a bet on human cussedness. In that scenario, when we're increasingly confronted in the next 10 to 20 years by temptations to enhance our minds, memories, metabolisms, and personalities, we confound expectations. Our future isn't locked into a predictable path; we control the social impact of our innovations rather than being controlled by them."
In that light, Garreau recommends three literary examinations of cussedness: The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy, Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
"I'm shocked to discover on Amazon.com how many apparently young people don't get the humor in Donleavy's tale of debauchery, lechery, and quest for meaning," Garreau says. "As a young man, I dropped this book into my pack on my first trip out of the country–to Brazil–and it unexpectedly and dramatically altered the experience."
Garreau's teenage daughter introduced him to British satirist Pratchett: "Thief of Time is the most thoughtful and least formulaic of his oeuvre," he says.
He quotes Pratchett on our species: "Perhaps it was boredom, not intelligence, that had propelled them up the evolutionary ladder . . . that strange ability to look at the universe and think 'oh, the same as yesterday, how dull. I wonder what happens if I bang this rock on that head?' "
Garreau regularly returns to Huckleberry Finn: "Huck may be the archetypal 'prevail' hero when he considers no longer struggling against the forces of civilization and religion arrayed against him. He considers doing the 'right thing'–turning in his friend Jim, the runaway slave. As he stares at the letter he's written, he seals his fate.
"Huck says, 'All right, then, I'll go to hell,' and tears the letter up. He then continues: 'It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said . . . . I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.' "
Says Garreau: "Admirable sentiments, for a human."
History was next on the schedule, so I went to DC author Ann Blackman. Her latest book is Wild Rose: Civil War Spy, a biography of Rose O'Neal Greenhow, a Washington hostess who later spied for the Confederacy. Blackman admires another book about that period, also set here–Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War by local author Ernest B. Furgurson.
"It's is a detailed history of the capital in the years leading up to the war," Blackman says, "a story of soldiers and spies, statesmen and slaves, gamblers and hookers–a rich narrative that reads like a novel."
For a reader-friendly economics assignment, I turned to William Greider, DC-based national-affairs correspondent for the Nation magazine and author most recently of The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy. A favorite of his is The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America by Lawrence Goodwyn.
"It's economic history," Greider says, "but it's really a great saga of the human spirit among ordinary Americans. Goodwyn describes, with compelling style, the struggling yeoman farmers from the South and Midwest who rose up in the late 19th century and formed their own muscular political movement. They were defeated in the end, but their progressive ideas changed the nation."
Time for science class: Allyson McKowen teaches biology at Arlington's Yorktown High School and was recently named E.C.L. Miller Science Teacher of the Year by the Virginia Junior Academy of Science. She recommends Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales, narratives of patients dealing with neurological disorders.
McKowen, who was a neuroscience major in college, says: "Sacks, a neurologist, has some notoriety as the doctor from the movie Awakenings, with Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro. He writes in a way that any reader can understand–the book isn't filled with jargon for scientists and medical professionals."
For spiritual reading with wide appeal, I asked the Reverend Carole Crumley, an Episcopal priest and codirector of Bethesda's Shalem Institute, an ecumenical Christian community dedicated to contemplative living. She recommends Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk.
"This is the first book I ever read by Thich Nhat Hanh, in 1976," Crumley says. "I return to it for its simplicity, its reminder of the connection between my own inner peace and peace on earth, and its practical ways of realizing that peace in my life. He shows me how peace is available now, in each moment, whether washing dishes, driving a car, eating an orange, answering the telephone, or taking a walk."
For learning about other parts of the world, Moisés Naìm–editor of Foreign Policy magazine and author of Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy, due out in October–has two suggestions.
"Neither is explicitly about foreign policy," Naìm says, "yet both provide indispensable insights into today's world. Thomas L. Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem is a riveting account of the roots and early escalation of a regional conflict that has become a major source of global insecurity. Samuel P. Huntington's Political Order in Changing Societies–despite being several decades old–is the best book on the political consequences of rapid socioeconomic change in poor countries. Read it and you'll gain a fuller understanding of the forces behind news about China, Russia, or Africa."
Back to literature, with a recommendation from poet Jody Bolz, author of the collection A Lesson in Narrative Time and an editor at Poet Lore, a literary journal published by the Writer's Center in Bethesda. She wouldn't be without Washingtonian Linda Pastan's Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1998.
"This is a completely engaging book," Bolz says, "accessible and beautifully crafted. Whether the poems draw on art, myth, or domestic love for their imagery, each is both a celebration and an elegy. In Pastan's poems, people go about their lives with passionate attention, while around them the wide world, with its dizzying cycle, reminds us that each small scene, however luminous, is only a temporary triumph."
Finally, physical education. For that I turned to Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, whose books include two written with cyclist Lance Armstrong.
She asked whether she could include something by her father, sportswriter and novelist Dan Jenkins. She calls his 1970 book, The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate, "essays about the toll golf takes on all humans, regardless of whether we're amateurs or Jack Nicklaus. The cast of characters ranges from Nicklaus to caddies, and the title alone should tell you how good the book is."
Her other favorite is George Plimpton's 1973 book, Mad Ducks and Bears: Football Revisited. "It's about the NFL through the eyes of two men on different sides of the line–a defensive lineman and an offensive lineman, Alex Karras and John Gordy. It remains the single best thing I've ever read about football."