What We’re Reading: NAS Goes to the Beach

National Association of Scholars

It's rare to find the NAS staff without a book—or several—close at hand, especially during the summer, when our reading list grows longer than the cattails.

Here's what we’re taking to the beach:


Peter Wood, President

"Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new."

—Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

I finished Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1848) a few weeks ago, and started reading Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and Shadow (2012). I’m also re-reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). My big book of the moment is Liah Greenfeld’s Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience (2013).

I tend not to make reading plans much in advance of actual reading, but I have some hope of reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) this summer. Graeber is an anthropologist who is one of the key figures in the Occupy movement. He is also a self-described anarchist, a very good writer, and hugely influential among radical leftists.

I’d also like to read Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus’s The Creation of Inequality (2012) a recent work by two anthropologically minded archaeologists, who are dealing with some issues similar to Graeber’s but from a more conventional scientific perspective.

I have just finished reading all through Dickens’s novels and have some hope of rereading David Copperfield (1849) later this summer—a book I last read when I was in high school, and read way too hurriedly. I’ve since learned how to slow down.


Ashley Thorne, Director, Center for the Study of the Curriculum

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

—Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

On my list for this summer are Charlotte Brontë’s 600-page Villette (1853), to read another romance by Jane Eyre’s author and to brush up on my French; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), to supplement my acquaintance with the classic dystopian novels; and Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (2007), to indulge in a linguistic beach read.

Here are four others that I’ve already read and recommend:

Under Western Eyes (1911) by Joseph Conrad. Razumov, a promising University student, becomes embroiled in a terrorist conspiracy by a fellow student. He enters the world of the anarchists and goes on a mission to spy on the revolutionary’s sister and mother.

The Code Book (1999) by Simon Singh. Singh’s history of code-making and code-breaking (cryptography and cryptanalysis) shows how wars were won, a queen was decapitated, and centuries-long mysteries have been solved through the power of encryption. The Code Book rivets word nerds, puzzle-solvers, and the historically curious. It ends with unanswered questions about quantum cryptography in the information age that are becoming more and more relevant today.

Attached at the end of the book are 10 cipher texts (The Cipher Challenge) that when solved generate a message.

The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame. Suitable for children and charming for adults, this is a classic tale of friendship—of Mole, Rat, Badger, and the monomaniacal Mr. Toad.

The Right Stuff (1979) by Tom Wolfe. A true story of the first American astronauts, who flew in Project Mercury in the space race against the Soviet Union. Tom Wolfe, pioneer of the “new journalism” style, unlocks the inner lives of the men who had what it took.


Michael Toscano, Director of Research Projects

"The voice of Love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number."

―P.G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves!

My subway read is Great Expectations (1860). I am finding it hard not to laugh at Uncle Joe, Mrs. Joe, and all the other absurd and lively characters of Pip’s youth. I don’t think my fellow New Yorkers like me very much in the morning.

On the heavier, philosophical side of things, I just finished Michael Allen Gillespie’s excellent The Theological Origins of Modernity (2008). Gillespie challenges the traditional reading of modernity as a historically unprecedented epoch—a philosophical turning away from the Middle Ages. Rather, Gillespie argues, modernity is the very opposite: a product of the victory (within the Middle Ages) of a nominalist ontology over scholasticism.

Continuing on the theme of medieval Europe, I’m now reading Johan Huizinga’s classic, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1919; 1996). Kind of goes without saying at this point, but it’s a remarkably beautiful book which focuses on the “psycho-social” forces that animated medieval society. 

Oh, one more. I also just finished Very Good, Jeeves! (1930) by P.G. Wodehouse. Hilarious.


Glenn Ricketts, Public Affairs Director

“For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto an other brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”

—Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene

The Republic (B.C. 380) by Plato. I reread this book every summer during our family vacation at the seashore. It’s endlessly fresh, just as there’re no limits to the number of times you can listen to Beethoven’s Fifth.

The Second World War (1948) by Winston Churchill. Churchill is the twentieth century’s Gibbon. Like his predecessor, he has a point of view; in the same tradition, his scope is grand and his prose is magisterial. History as literature doesn’t come any better.

The Faerie Queene (1590) by Edmund Spenser. I hope I’m up to the challenge of this long, long allegory, left incomplete by the author’s premature death in 1596. Uniquely, it even introduces a new poetic device, the Spenserian stanza, along with an imposing mix of classical allusions, contemporary theological controversy, and Elizabethan politics. Since music and literature are often complementary, I’d recommend listening to John Bennet’s popular 1603 madrigal, All Creatures Now Are Merry-Minded, also a paean to the Virgin Queen.

The Clash of Civilizations (1996) by Samuel P. Huntington. The career-capping work of the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, who took some nasty attacks for this book. No wonder, since he sees an irreducible collision of beliefs driving the conflict between western and Islamic civilizations and makes the case for “western exceptionalism.” A very readable, virtuoso presentation of the international “big picture.”


Rachelle DeJong, Intern

"The vacancy left by absence of worship is filled by mere killing of time and by boredom, which is directly related to inability to enjoy leisure; for one can only be bored if the spiritual power to be leisurely has been lost."

—Joseph Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture

Over the next months, I plan to read a historical collection of political speeches, as much of the Shakespeare corpus as I can fit, and an assortment of books I’d unhappily deferred while devoting myself to school, including Wendy Shalit’s cultural critique A Return to Modesty (2000), Anthony Esolen’s satirical Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (2013), C.S. Lewis’s lexical Studies in Words (1960), and David Bentley Hart’s historical-theological survey Atheist Delusions (2010).

Some old favorites include:

Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1952) by Joseph Pieper. Pieper defends the philosophic act as useless contemplation properly freed from the demands of productivity. Echoing the psalm’s call to “be still and know that I am God,” Pieper holds that leisure, when properly culminating in culture formation, leads to the worship and glorification of the divine.

The Screwtape Letters (1942) by C.S. Lewis. Insightful, quirky, delightful, and frightening by turns, these imaginary letters from an experienced demon advising a young tempter provoke deep thought on the nature of spiritual purity.

The Repeal of Reticence (1996) by Rochelle Gurstein. For those who deride privacy as mere prudery, reconsider. Gurstein chronicles the atrophy in cultural expectations and personal discretion since the Victorian era, defending good taste not merely as a subjective preference, but as the proper attitude elicited by some qualitative, objective goodness.


Tessa Carter, Intern

"It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer."

―Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

I'm currently reading The Ordering of Love (2005), Madeleine L’Engle's new and collected poetry; Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (1854); and Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy (1958). I've also been rereading some George MacDonald fairy stories, such as “The Light Princess” and “The Day Boy and the Night Girl," and have been rediscovering their wonder and beauty.

Here are four more that I recommend:

Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (1997) by Jane Kenyon. Jane Kenyon writes of the sorrows and pleasures of the everyday—haying fields and hearth place, church fairs and kitchen tables, summer days and grey mornings—in this collection of quietly beautiful lyric poems. Don't miss "Let Evening Come," "Otherwise," and "Happiness."

Dandelion Wine (1957) by Ray Bradbury. I can't think of a better summer read than this treasure. Twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding, growing up in Green Town, Illinois, meets with a myriad of adventures and eccentric characters over one wine-sweet summer.

Life Work (1993; 2003) by Donald Hall. This slim book is the poet's concentrated meditation on work, labor, and vocation. Hall and wife Jane Kenyon lived and worked alongside each other for over twenty years until Jane's death in 1995, and Hall's preface to the 2003 edition reflects on the bittersweetness surrounding the writing of the book.

Several Short Sentences About Writing (2012) by Verlyn Klinkenborg. This little volume is perhaps the most helpful book on writing that I’ve found. It’s best read slowly and dipped into again and again so that one is constantly reminded of its good sense: "Know what each sentence says." "Pay attention to rhythm, first and last." 


Images: hyena reality / FreeDigitalPhotos.net; goodreads.

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