What book has had the greatest influence on you either professionally or personally—and why?
The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America recounts the Viking exploration and colonization of Greenland 1,000 years ago. I wonder what they knew of the North Atlantic environment. I think Greenland Norse knowledge—of the ocean currents, for example—was basically right. I think they exploited it to navigate their longboats, which was their enabling technology. Despite adversity and a worldview that is primitive by modern standards, the Greenlanders made noble discoveries. When future generations reflect on our own achievement, I hope the same can be said.”
Morton K. Blaustein Chair and Professor
Earth and Planetary Sciences
Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process. I’ve always considered humans fundamentally similar across space and time. But Elias shows that human embarrassment, repugnance, and horror changed radically through history. Invited to your friend’s manor for dinner? Medieval and early-modern etiquette manuals said not to blow your nose on the tablecloth or piss on the dining-room wall. Over time, we’ve hidden and privatized bodily functions, emotions, and violence, restricting urination to the bathroom, sex to the bedroom, and fisticuffs to the boxing ring. So…why? Elias points, brilliantly, to the centralization of state power. Today, only ‘uncivilized’ individuals slug one another at dinner, yet ‘civilized’ governments drop bombs killing thousands. Sad!”
I was probably in junior high or high school when I came across a collection by Gwendolyn Brooks. For some reason, The Bean Eaters—describing a couple ‘who have lived their day / But keep on putting on their clothes / And putting things away’—stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t understand how she had made such a quotidian detail so evocative and sad. I didn’t understand why I responded to it, but I knew that I did, and it was one of the first steps on the path to studying poetry.”