Thought-Provoking Summer Reading

Our ever-inquiring curriculum writer Alan Shapiro suggests books, articles, and a blog that are sure to sharpen your thinking.

by Alan Shapiro


In addition to Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow, which is reviewed on this website, some suggestions for worthwhile summer reading.

On Arabs, Islam, Iran, Iraq


Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, 1991

"The subject of this book is the history of the Arabic-speaking parts of the Islamic world, from the rise of Islam to the present day," begins this scholarly but very readable history by an Oxford historian. Hourani's comprehensive survey covers religion, commerce, politics, literature, the rise and fall of empires and our own time of nation-states. He concludes, "There was not one idea of Islam only, but a whole spectrum of them. The word 'Islam" did not have a single, simple meaning, but was what Muslims made of it. The term 'fundamentalism', which had become fashionable, carried a variety of meanings. The word could also be used of an attitude which might better be called 'conservative'. The circumstances of the different Arab countries varied greatly." Hourani writes clearly, concisely, simply, but not simplistically, and offers his own views modestly and fairly.

Reza Aslan, No god but God: the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, 2005

Aslan's subtitle outlines the major sections but does not suggest the surprises they containósuch as Mohammad's almost modern views on women that contrast sharply with those of his Taliban, Wahabi, and Salafi followers todayóand his passion for the rights of the oppressed.

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, 2003

This book is a memoir about life under a repressive, theocratic regime, about discussing Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen with a group of young women and deepening their understanding of the relationship between life and literature. And it's about young women trying to make lives for themselves in the midst of a regime's war against women. The writer is a passionate woman and a superb teacher.

Juan Cole, "Informed Comment" at

A professor of history at the University of Michigan whose specialty is Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history, Cole has for some time focused on Shiite Iraq and Iran. He has lived in the Middle East and speaks fluent Arabic, Persian and Urdu. His blog (whose archive goes back to 4/1/02) details the daily mayhem in Iraq, major elements of which often go unrecorded in the mainstream media, and frequently includes translations from Iraqi and other Middle Eastern media and mosque sermons by leading Sunni and Shiite clerics. Cole also offers his very well informed views of what is happening in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Bush administration policies, and the like.

Our Constitution, Our Country, Two Leaders

Elizabeth Drew, "Bush's Power Grab," New York Review of Books, 6/22/06

Drew's article deserves close reading by every teacher who takes the Constitution seriously. She documents a presidential accumulation of powers and a failure to oblige our government to control itself.


Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, 2005

That Abraham Lincoln was an extraordinary man is commonly understood. But Goodwin's Pulitzer Prize-winning multiple biography of William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Lincoln illuminates his extraordinariness by focusing on lesser-noted aspects of his character and insight. Here is a one-term congressman and country lawyer whose political acumen led him deliberately to select, work with, get the best out of, and manage a secretary of state, a secretary of the treasury, and an attorney general, each of whom were in the running for the presidency, thought himself superior in merit to the winner and at times even worked to subvert his policies. As Goodwin demonstrates, Lincoln was not only a political genius but also a rare human being.


The Fate of the Earth and "The Degeneracy of Mankind"


Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, 2003

Beginning with The Fate of the Earth, which 25 years ago made a powerful case for the incomparable peril of nuclear weapons to the future of humanity, Jonathan Schell has repeatedly offered alternatives to the kind of conventional thinking that leads to the graveyard. "The century of total violence [the 20th] was, however discreetly, also a century of nonviolent action," Schell writes. He then details the parallel histories of violence and nonviolence before discussing four sane plans leading to "peace, social justice, and defense of the environment."


Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness in the West, 1985

Setting: 1850s and the Texas-Mexico border. Plot: Based on historical events. Mindless violence, scalping and episodic riots of drinking and fornication are what bring together a small band, including a 14-year-old, the Kid, under John Glanton. Hired to bring back the scalps of Apache marauders, they cross and re-cross desolate wastes of northern Mexico killing and getting killed. Glanton's elderly advisor is the terrifying Judge Holden, who tells the men and us: "If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?....The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression (blood meridian) signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day." The novel has some portentous obscure prose but a mesmerizing, driving, relentless power.


Two Master Artists


Hilary Spurling, Matisse the Master:  A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Color, 1909-1954, 2005

Don't try reading this oversized, 512-page, magnificent second volume of Spurling's study of Matisse's life and work on the beach. Perhaps you can prop the book on your lap before a window opening on the sea. Experience Matisse's power to paint with colors that did not explode from the canvas only because he held them there with design. Contemplate a reproduction of The Conversation, an early 20th century work in which:

The man in white-striped pajamas
awaits sentencing before
the black-robed goddess

whose coal eyes freeze him and
command obeisance if
he wishes to embrace

the tree of life in the garden
standing outside a window
in the space between them.

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, translated from the French by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terrence Kilmartin and revised by D.J. Enright, Everyman's Library, 1981, 1992

All of these incomparably rich seven volumes that are one volume should be read despite their length, despite labyrinthine sentences that uncoil down the page until one despairs of reaching an ever-receding period, despite tedious passages like one covering etymologies of French place-names that also seem unending.

Why? Because Proust shows us the key to a search for lost time; dramatizes the ultimate unknowability of others, of oneself; reveals the multiplicity of every person, reveals through a few words or a small gesture the differences among what people say, what they mean, and what they reveal; brings to life revelatory experiences-the famous Madeleine soaked in tea, a church spire seen from different vantage points, a dazzling vista of apple trees; includes marvelously funny scenes like one in which M. de Guermantes, about to leave for a dinner party, refuses to hear that a cousin in a nearby house has died because he wants to go to the party; explores intensely the experience of love and jealousy; demonstrates our endless misunderstandings of others, failures of memory, "the purely mental character of reality," the staggeringly relentless ravages of age and that everyone and everything, including art, are victims of Time.

Writes Proust: "The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the books says is the proof of its veracity."


This article was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: