The New York Times has a weekly installment called “By the Book” which is a series of questions and answers about the reading habits of notable writers. This chapter features History Department Chair Kathleen Minahan.
What books are on your nightstand?
I am nearly incapable of reading just one book at a time, so there are usually between three and five books floating around. Currently, I’m reading Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head, Ibram X. Kendi & Keisha N. Blain’s Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, and Ola Watowa’s Wszystko, co najważniejsze (The Most Important Things, a memoir of deportation to Kazakhstan during World War II). I’m also reading the Monks of New Skete’s The Art of Raising a Puppy as I try to figure out what to do with my new baby monster.
Describe your ideal reading experience.
In my opinion, almost every situation is the ideal moment to read – I almost never leave my house without a book – but I suppose I can narrow it down to two options. The first is snuggled in my reading chair with my pets on a snowy day. I like to nestle under a pile of blankets with a cup of tea (which I invariably forget) by my side. In the midst of this covid winter, the reading experience I find myself most pining for is a summer day in Warsaw, Poland. I love to sit outside at my favorite cafe, which is perched on the banks of the Vistula River, with a memoir of interwar or late-communist Poland and an iced coffee.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading – and which do you avoid?
I LOVE magical realism, memoirs, and young adult fantasy. I adore well-written, carefully researched historical fiction – Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge comes to mind–but too often I end up disappointed, ranting about details the author got wrong and annoying my friends. For a long time I disliked short stories as I felt like I was often left wanting more, but they’ve been growing on me of late, mostly thanks to Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Yours is Not Yours. I also read a lot of historical monographs, generally about Eastern Europe, but I’ve been reading more American history of late. Honestly, I’m not sure there are any genres I really dislike, with the possible exception of romance novels, but even then I am loath to write off a whole genre.
What is the best book you have ever received as a gift?
In my senior year of high school, my Russian class read excerpts of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and I talked about it incessantly. I didn’t yet have the linguistic fortitude to read the whole thing in Russian (it’s nearly 900 pages), so my residential dean somehow tracked down a copy of it in English for me. Amazon was in its infancy at the time and Life and Fate is not exactly the type of book you find in your average bookstore. I have no idea how Mrs. Birecki found it, but I have rarely felt as loved as when she presented me with this book.
What kind of reader were you as a child? What should everyone read before the age of ten?
I read CONSTANTLY as a child. I read in the car, at recess, and under the covers with a flashlight until well past my bedtime. I once got in trouble for reading under my desk during a spelling test. It didn’t occur to me that this definitely made it seem like I was trying to cheat, I just needed to know what happened next! I’m not sure I can pick one book every child should read before they turn ten, but my favorite books as a child were both written by Lois Lowry. The Giver captured my interest from the very first page and I’m not sure any book has had more influence on my life than Number the Stars.
How do you organize your books?
I am not of the people who organize their books. I have great admiration for these people, but I don’t have the executive functioning necessary to stick to any real system. There are four bookcases in my living room and three in my bedroom, so there is no lack of space for books, but you’ll find them nearly everywhere in my apartment. I do try to separate my Polish and Russian books and new books I haven’t yet read start out on the top shelf of one of the bookcases in my living room, but they have a tendency to migrate.
What do you plan to read next?
I still haven’t read Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia and that’s high on my list. I also just picked up How We Go Home: Voices from Indigenous North America, a collection of essays about contemporary indigenous life that I really want to incorporate into my eighth grade unit on indigenous history next year. And rereading Just Above My Head is making me think it might be time to revisit Giovanni’s Room… In short, your guess is as good as mine!
You read writers who are translated into English; which ones do you recommend?
Svetlana Alexeivich’s creative nonfiction is spectacular–Voices from Chernoybl is a must – and Olga Tokarczuk is my favorite Polish writer who is readily available in English. Mikhail Bulgakov and Hanna Krall are also authors whose works I return to often. As far as writers I have read in translation, Carlos Ruiz Zafón is one of my all-time favorite writers; if you like magical realism, you MUST read The Shadow of the Wind. Sofia Segovia’s The Murmur of Bees was a lifeline in the early days of the pandemic and I’m excited to read more of her work. Oh, and everything that Milan Kundera has ever written, but especially The Joke.