In the past seven years, I lived an arduous life of being a researcher and a scholar, working diligently on my book project Networking China. In this intellectual journey, books have been the best companions. A couple of works stood out for helping me identify a dynamic phenomenon that I intend to describe and explain. They are books that created light-bulb moments, shaping my ideas about China as a so-called network nation. Particularly inspiring are media critic Herbert Schiller’s Information and the Crisis Economy and political scientist Edward Steinfeld’s Playing Our Game: Why China’s Rise Doesn’t Threat the West.
During a bout with insomnia that went the full 12 rounds a few years ago, I began to read about the science and havoc of stress in the hope of managing mine. I discovered the neuroendocrinology behind stress-triggered cortisol surges that sicken and age us, contributing to depression, anxiety, autoimmune disorders, and even cancer, and I learned why our dear shriveling hippocampi, the bosses of memory and learning in our brains, need exercise to outrun the amygdala, where fear and negativity lurk. Brain research is hopeful: “Small positive actions every day will add up to large changes over time, as you gradually build new neural structures” (Hanson, Buddha’s Brain 19). Although we academics are as overwhelmed as other professions, it seems our deadlines coincide with preexisting conditions of stress, namely December holidays, and, for those of us with children, grading and conventions often dovetail nicely with Spring school concerts, sports tournaments, and graduations. Because the resources I discuss here helped slow my cortisol careen, I gratefully pass them along.
Long before I even knew what a historian was or did, I was fascinated by stories about the past. My grandparents indulged my endless questions about their lives in the 1920s and 1930s and my parents and older siblings made sure I had an endless supply of diverse reading material at all times. One of those books was a version of “Sleeping Beauty” illustrated in the style of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the famous fifteenth-century Book of Hours illuminated by the Limbourg brothers. The strange clothes and the rich colors in the book captivated me, as did the idea that people might have lived in castles and spun their own thread.
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Being that I’ve spent a good portion of my life writing about music, particularly jazz and rock, you would think I’d be able to cite any number of music books that influenced or inspired me – that convinced me it was not impossible to capture notes in words, a task Thelonious Monk (allegedly) said was about as easy as dancing about architecture.
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Teachers suggested many books for me to read when I was young, so I slogged through a canonical list of Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, and Maugham. These are all worthy should reads. They forced me to imagine life beyond my small town of Emporia, Kansas. The conventions of fiction—Aristotle’s unity of plot, catharsis—became familiar.
Finally, though, I took charge of my own reading list and discovered memoirs. These enraptured me. Their narrators are intimate and true, not invented characters with exaggerated beady eyes and rumpled top hats. Memoirs now populate my private shelf of books to reread.
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In the beginning, Clarke’s Bookshop, Cape Town, started out with a shelf of new books on South Africa or published in South Africa – now that’s the main focus. Spread over two storeys are new books either published in South Africa, written by South Africans or about South Africa, as well as a second hand mix of general stuff – not just about South Africa.
Find out more about our bookshop of the month for March