ISIS, Noah, Watergate and Woodchucks

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This week’s Sunday Shorts: President Obama’s decision to engage in an open-ended air campaign designed to prevent the militant group Islamic State from expanding its territorial hold in Iraq has, predictably, been lambasted by critics on the Left and the … Continue reading

Map: The Trail Around Middlebury

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Road Taken: Finding Mom

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momfinalMy father was raised a Jew; my mother, a Quaker. Neither had much use for religion, though, so my childhood weekends were spent doing yard work. Our house sat on three acres of land, and my siblings and I were the yard crew, raking up weeds, rotten apples, and dead leaves.

In third grade, when Jay Follensbee insisted I’d go to Hell when I died because I didn’t attend church, I decided I’d better get religion. I told my parents I needed to go to Sunday school. After much discussion, they finally agreed to send me to a Unitarian Church about 10 miles away.

I lasted three Sundays. My dress had an itchy petticoat, and I spent class squirming in my chair, scratching my stomach. So despite Jay Follensbee’s threat, after the third Sunday I told my parents I wasn’t going anymore. I can’t remember if I ever told them why.

Not long after my Sunday school experiment, my mother announced with great indignation that the congregation of the local Episcopalian Church had fired their assistant minister because he had helped the first African American family move into our community. The hypocrisy of the congregation’s action was not lost on me, even at eight years old. Between this event and the itchy petticoat, I decided I didn’t need religion. And I managed to live my life well enough without it.

Until my mom died.

During the final days of her life, my father, siblings, and I huddled around her hospital bed in the intensive care unit, stroking her hands and hair. In a morphine haze, she suddenly asked my sister, Nancy, who had found religion in her 40s, to pray. As Nancy did, Mom began to whisper, “Take me home, God. Take me home.” At some point, she drifted into unconsciousness. Over the next 24 hours, her breathing became slower and more labored, until one breath became her last.

Without religion, I found no comfort in thoughts of Mom in some kind of happy afterlife, reunited with family and friends who had arrived before her. For 57 years, she had always been there for me, but now I had no idea where she had gone. Not knowing consumed me.

Three months after Mom died, my father, Nancy, and I drove to Westtown School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to spread her ashes in the arboretum there. Mom had been a “lifer” at Westtown and had loved that school with all her heart.

Pulling into the arboretum parking lot, I was sure we were in the wrong place.  Mom had spoken about the arboretum with such reverence that I expected stately wrought iron fencing and a gate guarding the entrance. Instead, we saw a simple wooden sign and a seemingly random stand of specimen trees planted on a sloping hillside.

Nancy found the spot. Three evergreens had grown together over the years; their lower branches formed a natural shelter. Stepping into it, I inhaled the sharp scent of fresh pine needles. My father removed a plastic bag from the black box he had carried into the arboretum. Undoing the twist tie, he turned the bag upside down. As Nancy and I steadied him, he began to spill the contents onto the ground. We rotated clockwise, and as we did, the ashes formed a chalky circle on the bed of pine needles. When the bag was empty, we stood inside the circle, held each other tight and wept. At that moment, I knew where Mom was. She was there with us, under those three evergreens that had grown together.

She was home.

Carolyn Rundle Field ’78 is a freelance writer, the former editor of Wilton Magazine, and a reformed advertising executive.

Guide to Summer Reading: On Our Faculty’s Nightstands

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With the summer months meaning a hiatus from the classroom for most Middlebury faculty, we were curious to learn what books they would choose to help pass the time.

Katy Smith Abbott, Dean of Students; Assistant Professor, History of Art and Architecture
Molly Caro May’s newly published memoir, The Map of Enough: One Woman’s Search for Place. Molly is a former student (Class of ’02) who has remained a friend since her graduation, and I find her sense of adventure and her fearlessness are sources of real inspiration. In addition, she’s a beautiful writer—I am savoring this book.

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. This book was recommended to me as the favorite book of my son Elliott’s favorite English teacher at Middlebury Union High School, Kate Carroll ’92, English MA ’99. With limited time and the haunting knowledge that I’ll never read all I would like to, a ringing endorsement from someone whose taste and teaching I respect can be just the nudge I need.

Mary Ellen Bertolini, Director, Writing Center; Senior Lecturer, Tutor in Writing
I’m reading Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Suk-Young Chwe. I hope that it will give me new insights into Austen, who is my specialty, and will help me learn something about game theory. And the book was a gift from my wonderful husband.

Rick Bunt, Joseph Burr Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Organic Chemistry by Joel Karty. We are using this textbook for our new—and, we think, highly innovative—organic chemistry curriculum that starts in the fall. Among many benefits, it will allow premedical students (and others) to only take one semester of organic chemistry before taking biochemistry. This contrasts with the current two semesters of organic chemistry typically required at most schools.

Duct Tape Parenting: A Less Is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, and Resilient Kids by Vicki Hoefle. We have four- and six-year-old children. Enough said.

Reading anything else? (See second paragraph)

Jack Byrne, Director of Sustainability Integration
Biology Is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life by Robert H. Carlson. I’ve been following the evolution of synthetic biology now for quite a few years, which is an interest that comes from my training as a biologist and in environmental law and policy. I like Kevin Kelly’s definition of technology (anything produced by a mind) and it seems that our minds are quickly developing the technology to design, write and “print” up a specified set of characteristics that can be expressed in a form of life arising from our coding of ACGTs. And it’s already playing a transformative role economically. Carlson’s book is a good introduction to this rapidly evolving technology and its implications for a sustainable future.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. As a career environmentalist, I am woefully ignorant of the works of one our more famous American writers who was also an environmentalist. I have been a frequent traveler to the West now that I have a daughter who has been living in Wyoming for several years. From the novel I’m gaining a better appreciation of what it was like to raise a family in the Wild West through the eyes of a cultured Victorian Easterner as interpreted by her grandson through his take on her many letters and illustrations of that experience.

Svea Closser, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology
Summer for me means a Nora Roberts paperback, the beach, and a drink. My first book of summer opens, “Elizabeth Fitch’s short-lived teenage rebellion began with L’Oreal Pure Black, a pair of scissors and a fake ID. It ended in blood.” I don’t need to explain why this is fantastic, do I?

Jon Isham, Professor of Economics; Faculty Director, Center for Social Entrepreneurship
To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild. It’s a sobering account of how the world ended up in the Great War, with revealing stories of the women and men who understood its folly and raised their voices on behalf of a better way.

Andrea Lloyd, Vice President for Academic Affairs; Dean of the Faculty; Stewart Professor of Biology
Chicago Dreaming: Midwesterners and the City, 1871-1919 by our very own Tim Spears. This doesn’t quite fit the “beach reading” profile that I aspire to in the summers, but I am coteaching a course on American landscape history with Tim in the fall—and we plan to spend some time talking about the rise of Chicago. Since my knowledge of Chicago does not extend much beyond terminals B and C of O’Hare International Airport, I thought I’d better learn a thing or two. And what better place to start?

Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney. I started reading this collection of Heaney’s poetry last summer, when he died, and have resumed my meanderings through it this summer.  (My progress is slowed by the fact that every time I open it, I start again at the beginning. The first poem, “Digging,” might be my favorite in the entire collection, so I am compelled to revisit it again and again.)  I know of nobody who writes more lyrically about soil, or blackberries, or really anything else for that matter; his words are a perfect way to end a summer day spent tending the vegetable garden.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart. This is not the memoir of a wayward scientist, but rather a botanical exploration of the origins of modern-day alcoholic beverages. The text is an entertaining combination of the history of distillation, the botanical basis of different spirits, a bit of chemistry, and an excellent assortment of recipes for those interested in adding a hands-on component to their botanical education.

Kevin Moss, Jean Thomson Fulton Professor of Modern Language and Literature
I’ve been traveling too much to even think about reading, though I did pick up two memoirs in Belgrade, by two different gay activists, that I hope to get to.
Also on the shelf is Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. I’ve enjoyed the excerpts in the New Yorker and need some kind of amusing reading to remind me that there are still reasons I like Russia, in spite of the current regime and its homophobic policies. If I have any huge yawning gaps, I’ve got Péter Nádas’s Parallel Stories, which should last for quite some time.

Erin Quinn ’86, Director of Athletics
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. With Mandela’s death in December, it seemed an apt time to read his autobiography and celebrate his life.

Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. I’m re-reading this after about 20 years of first discovering the book. I think of myself as optimistic but am trying to give a little more psychological foundation to it, so I am doing some reading regarding positive psychology, appreciative inquiry, and growth mindset.

Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax. This was recommended by a friend as a good book to read for parents of sons, but also for leaders of men and young men. I’m interested for both reasons.

Jim Ralph ’82, Dean of Faculty Development and Research; Rehnquist Professor of American History
My three-year-old son’s fascination with dinosaurs and his question “Where did all the dinosaurs go?” have led me to The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. I also hope to read two books about the purpose of higher education, Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do, and Rebecca Chopp et al.’s Remaking College: Innovation and the Liberal Arts. The latter features a chapter by John McCardell.

Michael Roy, Dean of the Library
Gun Guys by Dan Baum. This book explores the complexity of America’s gun culture, and as someone who lives in a community that has a deep history of guns, I want to better understand why this is and what it means.

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better by Clive Thompson. This book rebuts some of the Luddite claims that new technology is getting in the way of our ability to think clearly.

Jacob Tropp, John Spencer Professor of African Studies
The Circle by Dave Eggers. I’m looking forward to plunging into this critical fictional look at questions of privacy and corporate power in our contemporary world of social media, e-commerce, and digital information.

Cion: A Novel by Zakes Mda. This is a sequel to Mda’s wonderful novel Ways of Dying, which concerns the life and relations of a professional mourner in a poor urban community of South Africa shortly after the end of apartheid. Cion brings this man’s story to the United States, to rural Ohio, and interweaves his life story into the history of America’s slave-holding past and the legacy of the Underground Railroad. I’m curious to see how he pulls this all together.

Guide to Summer Reading: A Conversation with Michael Paterniti

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Paterniti2Before Michael Paterniti ’86 earned eight National Magazine Award nominations; before he told the unforgettable tale of driving Albert Einstein’s brain across the country (Driving Mr. Albert); before he was tapped as the writer who has shaped “the voice of modern long-form journalism”—before all of that—Michael Paterniti was 26 years old, with an MFA in fiction freshly affixed to his résumé and a proofreading job in an Ann Arbor, Michigan, deli, when he discovered a piece of cheese that would change his life.

Just not right away.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Paterniti’s unlikely discovery of Páramo de Guzmán would set him on an even unlikelier journey—Quixotic, if you will—that culminated, 22 years later, with the publication of The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese.

Only The Telling Room isn’t just about those marvelous notions.

Matt Jennings spent a few hours talking with Paterniti on a sun-soaked afternoon earlier this summer. This conversation, supplemented by email exchanges and a phone call, has been edited and condensed.

Matt Jennings It must drive you nuts when people casually ask, “So, what’s this book about?”

Michael Paterniti  [Laughs] Not at all. Because when you’re reading it, you’re not really sure. It starts off as this weird, epic journey in search of a little piece of cheese and ends up being a much larger quest for meaning and understanding. In a weird way, it becomes a quest to go backward. At a time when we are all hurtling forward, relentlessly, here’s an opportunity to feel deeply connected to something, where you have this intense sense of oneness with your environment and with the people, even if you don’t speak the language, even if you don’t share a common history.

Jennings And it began in a deli in Michigan…

Paterniti Yeah. I was just out of an MFA program, still hanging around Ann Arbor, completely broke, writing fiction, teaching a little. And I got this job at Zingerman’s Deli.

Jennings Is it true that they said you’re not qualified to make sandwiches, but you can proofread?

Paterniti Yeah, I couldn’t get the sandwich job. That really bummed me out.  I remember thinking, this degree really counts for nothing.

Jennings And, honestly, I’ve never heard of a deli hiring a proofreader.

Paterniti Well, that’s the thing. The owner, Ari, was this fascinating guy, and he wrote these great newsletters. One of the things he was doing with Zingerman’s was he would go and recover these foods from around the world, and he’d then harvest their stories. And this newsletter was one way to tell these stories.

So I was proofreading the newsletter, and one month he had brought back all of these Spanish products, and there was this little four or five paragraph entry for a cheese, Páramo de Guzmán. It was just an outline, but it sounded like the beginning of a fairy tale.

It was about this guy named Ambrosio, who was using a centuries-old recipe to make this cheese, and it was said that when people ate it, they were overcome with memories.

The cheese was made by hand. Ambrosio would milk the sheep himself. He’d bring the milk up to this little stable, where he’d make the cheese. And he’d age this cheese in his family’s ancestral cave. I remember reading that and thinking, who has a family cave? I certainly didn’t know anybody who had one.

Jennings  So, did the cheese have this magical effect on you?

Paterniti Oh, I didn’t try it; I couldn’t afford it! It was the most expensive cheese ($22 a pound) that Zingerman’s had ever sold. But when that newsletter came out, I ripped out the section on Páramo de Guzmán and threw it in a file.

Jennings And then…

Paterniti Eight years went by. I went through all of these moves, and I kept it with me. There was a point I had it in my wallet. Then it was in a file, then back in my wallet.

I didn’t really know why I had it. But one summer, in 2000, I was in Spain on assignment [for Esquire] to profile the chef Ferran Adrià. And for whatever reason, I pulled this clipping out of my wallet, and with the help of my friend Carlos Gomez (who was translating for me), I discovered that the village of Guzmán was two-and-a-half hours north of Madrid, up in the highlands of Meseta.

We knew we were going to have a day off during this extended period we spent with Ferran, so Carlos basically called the village bar, tracked down Ambrosio, and we made arrangements to go see him. I remember Carlos asking, “How are we going to find you?” And he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll find me.”

And this whole time, I’m thinking, this is so random. It wasn’t like I was obsessed with Castilian culture. Or that I was hell-bent on writing about the best cheese in the world. It was just that there was so much meaning that had accrued in this little nugget of a fairy tale.

I guess I went up there that first time not knowing. It turned out that Ambrosio didn’t make the cheese anymore, but he did have this story, and he told this story that first night in the telling room.*

Jennings So that night was the first you heard anything about the story? You arrived having no idea?

PaternitiPaterniti No idea. We arrived in Guzmán that afternoon and went looking for Ambrosio. Eventually somebody pointed to the cave. We went up and knocked on the door, which he slowly pulled open. And in we went.

Those telling rooms are so otherworldly.  They’re just these limestone holes, like snowdrifts or something.  They’re really close to each other, and inside there’s a wood-plank table and a candle, maybe a fireplace to use in the winter. It’s ancient—the room, the way everything is done, even the way they start to roll out stories.

Jennings Trapped in time.

Paterniti Totally. You really have this feeling when somebody is telling a story in the telling room that they’re telling a story that goes back to the beginning of history. So immediately that story of betrayal and revenge and this murder plot, it was echoing with all this history, all this Spanish history. And not just that but the intractable conflicts of our entire world history seemed to be there, too.

For me, it was also metaphoric, right from the start. I was transported and transfixed, as if I was under a huge midsummer spell.

Jennings In that moment—that night or the next morning—what’s happening in your head?  You’re in Spain to do this Esquire piece. And now you’ve heard this story. It’s almost like you’re caught between two worlds.

Paterniti It was weird. We were in the telling room with Ambrosio for about eight hours.  We walked out at close to 2:00 in the morning, and we drove down the hill from this beautiful shrinking village made out of limestone. It was —

Jennings A village of 80 people.

Paterniti Eighty people, this dying village on a hill. The one thing that I thought immediately in Guzmán was, this is better than I could have imagined. This guy is better. He’s bigger. He’s a wilder character. He tells a better story than anyone I’ve ever met. I’ve studied storytelling for years and to suddenly be in the presence of somebody whose stories echo with centuries of tales . . . it was pretty amazing. That’s what hit me right from the start: How do I get back here?

At the same time, I didn’t get ahead of myself at all because I had to go back to work. I was committed to the Ferran piece, and I was lost in that world. So it seemed like a dream afterward; I wanted to go back just to see if it was real. I wanted to hear Ambrosio tell that same story again, just so that I could verify it. At the same time, somewhere behind this elaborate tale I knew what I was going to find. This story had deeper meaning.

Jennings You’ve described Ambrosio as being like Falstaff…

Paterniti He’s totally Falstaff. When you’re with him, it’s like you’ve been swept off your feet and you’re lost in this rambunctious world of stories and jokes and drink and food. At that moment you’re living life in this alternate reality that has nothing to do with taking out your recycling.

Jennings And to tell this story effectively, you really had to live in that alternate world.

Paterniti For a little while, before I knew if I was going to do anything with this story, I’d visit Guzmán whenever I was in Europe on assignment. And then I eventually bought a ticket just to go back. By that point I was thinking, What is this? How do I get closer?

There are flaws in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but what I do love about that book is the immersive quality of it, the willingness to get dirty and to also allow the story to carry you wherever it goes. This work that we do carries us to these worlds that have their own energy, and then you begin to see and understand deeper things that you didn’t know when you first got there.

The more closely we observe things—things we fear and things we revere—the more complete we become.

Jennings You use a lot of footnotes in the book. It’s a clever way to introduce the reader to the Castilian method of storytelling, full of digressions.

Paterniti One of the things that I really wanted to have happen was this narrative battle for whose book it was. So, Ambrosio being the storyteller, like the ur-storyteller, I wanted him to own the first two-thirds. And that’s how he told a story—all of these trapdoors that take you to other places. Then I think maybe in the last third of the book, a lot of the footnotes just drop away. It becomes very American. Otherwise there’s no way. You can’t do footnotes within footnotes within footnotes and plow the field.

Jennings I’d like to go back to this battle over whose book it is. One of the tensions as a reader is over how much of Ambrosio’s story can we believe?

You say at some point that you had allowed the skepticism that existed in your day job as a journalist to just melt away; you were there to listen, not poke holes.

Paterniti Right.

Jennings But at some point you had to confront that. When did you reach that moment?

Paterniti I tried to avoid it for so long. I think it took about six years. I didn’t want to know the other side of the story. I think the moment where I began to realize I needed to step up to this was when I had written a number of drafts, and they all ended in 2003,  the summer my family lived in Guzmán. I wasn’t willing to go past that. I had five different versions of the first 180 pages, and I was driving myself crazy.

My wife, Sara, pointed out the obvious reason. There was another side of the story that I was refusing to consider. I had to go find Julian, the best friend. Sara said, “You have to do what you do every time you go out on assignment. You have to actually report and stop living the story so completely.” So there is that conflict between what is material and what is your life. Where do you draw some of those lines?

Jennings You were writing this book for 10 years—

Paterniti It didn’t feel like 10 years.

Jennings Really?

TellingRoomPaterniti I just felt like I was waiting for things to unfold in a way that seemed organic. So in a way, just on the subject of time, time is something I’m obsessed with in the stories I write, like how in a single minute your life can be completely flipped, especially in the big tragedy stories or the war stories.

You have traumatic events changing the course of a life very quickly.** In Guzmán it was slow living, and it was slow unfolding, and it was slow storytelling. It took 10 years to get the real story.

Sometimes you have to wait. Sometimes it happens right away. Sometimes you go to Nanjing and you’re on a suicide bridge and some guy tries to jump within the first six hours of your being there. And sometimes you’re there for 12 days, and you see nothing. Or it may be that someone doesn’t come to jump, but there’s a gesture. There’s something that opens the seams of the world for one moment, and you see that pain or that joy or that, I don’t know, connective tissue that makes us one thing.

Then once you have that, for me at least, then I can go back into everything I’ve accumulated and try to imbue it in some way with meaning, knowing what I know having waited it out.

Jennings Part of writing literary nonfiction is making use of the fiction writer’s toolbox.

Paterniti I see it as trying to create a language of your own to tell these stories that matter the most to you. So when you have a man who’s poured every waking hour of every day into this one grape vineyard—because that matters more than anything to his family, to drink that wine at the end of the season—and then this vicious hailstorm comes through and rips everything apart, and you’re there for it, then you have all these elements, all this reporting and understanding. And how you write that, what similes and metaphors you choose to use, all of that stuff is yours, at your complete disposal.

There are very distinct lines between the genres, but I’ve always thought of them in my own writing as very blurred. That doesn’t mean you get to make anything up, that you get to create your own version of it. You take what you have and you make something from that.

Jennings After living with a story that is so personal, that has consumed more than 20 years of your life, what do you hold onto now and what do you let go?

Paterniti There are these strange, loopy left-hand turns we can take in life that will lead us through portals that eventually lend clarity to the world. That’s what this book, this experience, did for me, for my family. Underneath it all, it goes back to a certain set of questions—like, are you destined to be shaped by the forces of the world or do you have the capacity to shape the world around you?

So all of that stays with me. As for the book itself, it’s like some little shard that’s going to be there someday in the ruin that was my life. People can look at it and try to figure it out; someone may pick it up, others may not bother with it, but the thing is that there’s some evidence of a life lived.

Jennings And not just evidence of a life lived, but evidence of a way of living life.

Paterniti Yeah, it makes you think. It seems like we live in an age of 24-hour memories. The viral video of the day, the erosive flood of metadata. And we keep losing the deeper past and with it our sense of place and identity. We keep forgetting what we were supposed to remember.

Jennings Perfectly said.


End Notes

*We don’t want to give too much away, though you should know that as Ambrosio’s cheese began to gain a world following in the late 1980s/early 1990s, he could no longer produce it by himself. He brought in other people, including his best friend, to start a business. Only the best friend betrayed him and cut Ambrosio out of the business. His family cheese stolen, Ambrosio began to plot the murder of his best friend. Really.

**Among other stories, Paterniti has written about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 1998 crash of Swissair Flight 111, and the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.

Cover Essay: What to Read?

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

COVER-ESSAYI’m a lover of books, great ones and not-so-great ones. And I also love lists. So it didn’t surprise me when Amazon recently came out with its “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.”

I was, however, more than a little shocked by the list, which included a few classics, such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, squeezed alongside Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Really? And do you think The Very Hungry Caterpillar should sit on the shelf of must-reads-before-dying with Pride and Prejudice, the great masterpiece by Jane Austen?

If you’re looking for guidance on the books that you should read in your lifetime—and are considering using the summer to get started—this topic is worth exploring further.

In the novel category, should one read Jacqueline Susann’s truly terrible Valley of the Dolls instead of, say, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or—the greatest of all novels— Middlemarch by George Eliot? For poetry, Amazon recommends Shel Silverstein instead of the poems of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, or Emily Dickinson. For a great biography, we get Robert A. Caro’s admirable life of Robert Moses. But what about James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, arguably the finest biography ever published?

Certain books here are familiar to high school students, including To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Catcher in the Rye. I don’t like any of these much, if truth be told. One of my sons recently graduated from high school, and he complained that in the past six years he had been asked every single year to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Surely there are other books about race relations in the American South?

I did like certain choices that Amazon made: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is certainly the best book about Vietnam; more than that, it’s a dazzling work of art. John Irving’s The World According to Garp will always deserve readers, as will The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

So, if this is the summer to get started on your reading quest, I suggest reading Thoreau’s Walden, which didn’t make Amazon’s list. It’s a sublime work of literature, better than any of the memoirs included here. And read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin before you read The Liars’ Club by Mary Carr or The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The latter are fine books, but they should not crowd out Thoreau or Franklin.

It’s sad to see that Shakespeare and Tolstoy don’t make Amazon’s 100. Nor do Updike or Bellow. I’d say that only about a third of the books on Amazon’s list are in any way essential reading. Now, I’m not arguing that you should spend vacation time reading work that I or others consider essential. But if you are interested in “must reads”—life is short, after all—rip this page out of the magazine and take it to your local bookstore. Or order online, if you must—just don’t let the online store choose the selections for you.

This essay first appeared as commentary on CNN.com.

Colophon: The Politics of Torture

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

MassacreSpread
In 1624, the English East India Company authorized the publication of a sensational book, A true relation of the unjust, cruell, and barbarous proceedings against the English at Amboyna in the East Indies: by the Neatherlandish governour and councel there. The book was part of a pamphlet war between the English and the Dutch and was reprinted throughout the century.

The frontispiece depicts the torture and execution of English traders in one of the spice islands of what is today eastern Indonesia. Both the English and Dutch were new to the lucrative trade in cloves, mace, and nutmeg and were vying for their control. A recent treaty had supposedly settled matters, allowing the English to trade alongside the Dutch, but mistrust was in the air.

In early 1623, the Dutch governor of Amboina accused English traders, Japanese mercenaries, and a Portuguese slave overseer of plotting a coup. The Dutch used torture to extract confessions. They bound each man to a doorframe and tied a cloth around each face so that little water could escape. “That done, they poured the Water softly upon his Head until the Cloath was full up to the Mouth and Nostrils . . .  so that he could not draw breath, but he must withal suck in the water:  Which being still continued to be poured in softly, forced all his inward parts, to come out of his Nose, Ears, and Eyes, and . . . brought him to a swoun or fainting.”

When waterboarding was insufficient, they lit candles under armpits and feet. The author points out that the torture resulted in false confessions and unjust executions. When the book was printed, it caused outrage in England and fueled anti-Dutch sentiment.