I used to be the kind of reader who read one book at a time. I simply wouldn’t pick up another book before I finished the one I was reading. I don’t know when that changed, but it sure has. Here’s the maze of books I’m in the middle of right now.
1) I just finished Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, a novel about the German occupation of France during World War II. It’s a powerful story, set against Nemirovsky’s bio. A well-known author and Russian Jew living in France, Nemirovsky was mid-way through writing what she was planning as an epic novel when she was deported to Auschwitz. Her young daughters survived the Holocaust and the war and miraculously ended up with their mother’s partly finished manuscript, which 65 years later they published.
2) I’m halfway through Terry Tempest William’s newest book Finding Beauty in a Broken World, which is about learning to make mosaics, studying endangered prairie dogs, and spending time in Rwanda working with Rwandans to create a mosaic memorial for people who died in the 1994 genocide. I’m stalled a bit; the book’s brilliant, but I’m not ready yet to read about the Rwandan horror.
3) And then I’m listening on tape (well, actually on mp3) to Sherman Alexie read his The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s such the story of poverty, being Native on the reservation, what it means to leave home, and disability (without ever saying the word disability). A few scenes of bullying with the word retard had me squirming with a sense of recognition. So that’s what I’m reading for leisure.
For work I’m in the midst of three books:
4) As research for an essay I’m writing about living in Vermont, I’m reading The Voice of the Dawn: An Autohistory of the Abenaki Nation, learning the details of land theivery, smallpox, and genocide on the piece of earth that white people call Vermont and Abenakis call Wobanakik.
5) In prep for the mini-course on freak show history that I’m teaching at Oberlin in March, I’m reading Sideshow U.S.A. and thinking right now about Batwa man Ota Benga displayed at the Bronx Zoo in 1906 and Yahi man Ishi displayed at the UC Berkeley Museum of Anthropology from 1911 to 1915.
6) And finally I’m reading Lennard Davis on the history of the concept of normal and Chris Bell on white disability studies, both in The Disability Studies Reader.
It feels like a maze of books, rather than a simple stack, because of the connections and shared themes among them, despite their apparent differences. Clearly genocide tracks through most of them, including a connection between the rise of the concept of normal and eugenicists of the late 1800s. Another connective thread is histories of imperialism. I so clearly can visualize the web, the legacy: Ota Benga living in a zoo, Ishi living in a museum, Abenaki people going further underground to escape eugenicists in the 1930s, Nemirovsky dying in Auschwitz, Rwandans dealing with the aftermath of genocide, a Spokane Indian teenager struggling to leave the Res due to poverty and violence. This web is about interlocking histories, none of which are entirely in the past. Throw in the ways “normal” has been used to bolster and justify so much–from gawking at the freak show, zoo, and museum to imperialist invasion–and the ways abuse, neglect, and disregard of the natural world mirror the same in the human world (as if I could separate the two worlds), and I find myself in a dense maze of reading right now.