Presidential Page Turners
The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941: The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor. Paul Dickson (2020)
As a historian I am particularly interested in transformative eras, whether or not people at the time realized that they were living in a transformative moment. Dickson examines just such a moment, when President Roosevelt and others realized that the tiny U.S. Army would be no match for Hitler should war happen. Indeed, Dickson notes, the U.S. Army was smaller than even the army of Portugal in the late 1930s, so small that all of its soldiers could have fit into Yankee Stadium. The author covers political battles in Washington, including a razor-thin vote to institute a peacetime draft in 1940, and the three large military maneuvers designed to test the wobbly legs of the Army as it rapidly expanded in 1940 and 1941.
A Traitor to His Species: Henry Bergh and the Birth of the Animal Rights Movement. Ernest Freeberg (2020)
Ernie Freeberg, Head of the History Department at the University of Tennessee, and I are good friends and former colleagues. He is an award-winning author and historian, whose book on Eugene Debs was a finalist for the L.A. Times book award. A fascinating tour of Gilded Age New York City, featuring vivid descriptions of humans interacting with thousands of animals in the city streets (mainly horses, pulling trolleys and delivery wagons and dying from exhaustion, and cattle being driven to slaughter). In the center of the book is Bergh, a quirky, patrician defender of animal rights when such a concept was barely even conceived, let alone accepted by the general public.
The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground. Justus Rosenberg (2020)
At the age of 16 Rosenberg's parents sent him away from Danzig, as they were worried, as Jews, about the rise of Hitler and the possibility that their city would be invaded when war began. He studied in Paris for three years, and when war reached France he fled to the south of the country and joined the French Underground. A personal, intimate and nicely written memoir. Rosenberg eventually taught for years at the University of Dayton, and later at Bard College. He survived many close calls and escaped from a Nazi camp for Jews in transit to Auschwitz. I was struck by this passage: As I was to learn again and again, survival is often a matter of luck, but being able to take advantage of good furtune depends upon alertness, preparedness, and constancy of intent. A moving epilogue recounting the fates of his friends and associates concludes this valuable book.
Students First: Equity, Access, and Opportunity in Higher Education. Paul LeBlanc (2021)
You know LeBlanc, or at least the university he leads, if for no other reason than the ads for Southern New Hampshire University, truly moving ads, that feature university leaders on the road presenting diplomas to graduates who earned their degrees fully online. The Preface and Chapter One of this book are worth the price of admission, for in them LeBlanc succinctly lays out the challenges to accessibility, equity and degree completion in the United States. If you combined your reading of these two chapters with reading Sarah Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price you would have a well-informed understanding of how the cost of attending college and earning a degree has shifted from state governments to consumers, with the poor paying the price in lessened access to a college education since the early 1980s. And the key is earning a degree, as LeBlanc explains powerfully. Even at a much higher cost the investment in earning a degree still pays off handsomely in increased lifetime earnings. However, “attending college but failing to graduate is often worse than not going at all, since the result is some not-very-useful credits, no degree, and often serious financial debt (p.xx).” What do families want from college? LeBlanc cuts through the noise and answers this powerfully and succinctly as well: “most families want three things from college:
- the right credential to unlock the door to a successful career, (and success means some combination of good pay, meaningful work, and a stable future)
- for it to be affordable
- to make students feel as though they matter, providing a sense of belonging and that institutions genuinely care about them (p.xxii).”
Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education. W. Joseph King and Brian C. Mitchell (2022)
Higher education insiders will probably want to read this book because they tend to read all such books. One gem: the author’s advice, early on in the book, is for presidents to help the university community understand who they really are, and what the university really is, as opposed to what faculty, staff, students and trustees my think they are. As the authors put it (p. 17) “One of the first keys to solid presidential leadership is to determine if the campus community understands itself and its role more broadly in higher education.”
All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler. Rebecca Donner (2021)
Mildred Harnack, from Milwaukee, met her future husband, a German exchange student, when they were both students at the University of Wisconsin. The couple married and moved to Berlin just as Hitler and the Nazis were coming to power. They shared information with diplomats in the U.S. Embassy via the young son of an American diplomat, under cover as a student of Harnack. As the war began, and the U.S. Embassy closed, the Harnacks tried to open a channel to British intelligence but were rebuffed. Eventually they shared intelligence with the Soviets, until their arrest, torture, and execution by the Gestapo. Researched and written by the author’s great-great-niece.
White Noise. Don Delillo (1984)
I decided to read this novel when I learned that a movie version was being filmed in Northeast Ohio in the summer of 2021, starring Greta Gerwig and Adam Driver, with one day of filming taking place on the Kent State campus. I'm not sure how this will be made into a movie, as much of it is the internal thoughts of the main character, a professor at a small, liberal-arts college in Ohio (much of the filming took place at Hiram College). The professor's general sense of dread and angst comes to fruition in an "airborne toxic incident."
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Isabel Wilkerson (2020)
This is the most important book I have read in the past decade, as the author powerfully examines the history of racism in the United States via comparisons with caste systems globally. It is also one of the most moving books I have read, as the author then presents gripping tales of her own and others' personal experiences with racism. Examples leap from the page, such as the discussion of how Nazi ideologues in the 1930s studied Jim Crow segregation and legislation but thought its "one drop" rule too radical for Germany. A more than worthy follow up to the author's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.
Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.
Sara Goldrick-Rab ( 2016)
By following students with high financial needs in a longitudinal study, Goldrick-Rab demonstrates that college is not affordable for poor and even many middle-class students. Financial aid covers portions of tuition and fees, but usually not indirect costs (transportation, books and supplies, housing), nor opportunity costs from lost wages if students work less than full time (students who work more than ten hours a week have far lower graduation rates). Financial aid (covering tuition and fees) is good, but students with high financial needs require support to cover other costs if we truly want them to earn a college degree.
Resurrection of the Wild: Meditations on Ohio's Natural Landscape. Deborah Fleming (2019)
Published by Kent State University Press, this collection of essays, which provided me with real comfort during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, recently won the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. In lieu of a review, I simply cite this passage, which reflects the grace of Fleming's writing and the beauty of her observations:
The process of growing with all its wayward meanderings is also the process of fruition. We reach ripeness not by making every correct choice but by error as well, because our mistakes teach us more than happening on the lucky 'right' choices. The wanderings and wrong turns make people interesting. What we are left with in the end - careers that take us in unexpected directions, success or disappointment in love, places we have lived in and become a part of, opportunities we passed up that haunt our memories - is what brings us to self-understanding.
The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic. Benjamin Carter Hett (2018)
The author deftly presents the stresses and strains, hatred and propaganda that buffeted Germany during and after WWI. He follows the anti-democratic machinations of right-wing politicians fearful of German Social Democrats and Communists, and how these political maneuvers weakened democracy, paving the way for the rise of the Nazis to power. "Hitler pulled all this together - the deliberate dishonesty, the concern with public irrationality, yet also the desire to revel in this irrationality." And once in power, "judges, lawyers and the law were among the things Hitler most despised, and his regime was one long assault on the rationality, predictability, and integrity of law."
The Yellow House. Sarah M. Bloom (2019)
Bloom is the youngest of 12 children who grew up in East New Orleans, a blighted area of the city that never came close to reaching the promise of its developers in the late 1950s/early 1960s. A tale of a family, of trials and tribulations, of home and of shifting memories. There's a reason this book was named one of the year's ten best books by the New York Times. The most powerful book I read in 2019.
The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Civil War. Eric Foner (2019)
Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, will speak at Kent State on May 3, 2020, as part of the May 4 observance. He presents the struggles to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which freed slaves, established citizenship guidelines, and created voting rights for African-American men. From the promise of full citizenship during Reconstruction, to the Supreme Court's dismantling of those gains, to the subsequent rise of Jim Crow segregation, Foner reminds us that rights "can be gained, and rights can be taken away. A century and a half after the end of slavery, the project of equal citizenship remains unfinished."