Summer Reading 2020: A Sampling of Erstwhile’s To-Read List

Erstwhile editors share a small selection from their summer reading lists.

Anna Kramer:

Justin Farrell, Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West (2020)

My main memory of the town of Jackson, Wyoming comes from several summers ago, when I climbed the Grand Teton in a single-day push and was blearily looking for a place to sleep after fourteen hours and seven thousand feet of elevation gain. All the campgrounds in Grand Teton National Park were full, the cheap (for Jackson) motels had no vacancies, and I was too exhausted to safely drive to the next town, so I found a quiet parking lot and passed out in my car. When I woke up the next morning, I found that I had plenty of company – vans, trucks, campers, cars, all with sleeping people inside. Some were probably like me: outsiders looking for a place to crash. But others were locals, people who lived and worked, often in the service industry, in this glamorous Western town and who couldn’t afford a non-vehicular roof over their heads in Jackson’s tight housing market.

This is a rather roundabout way of explaining why I’m itching to read Justin Farrell’s new book, Billionaire Wilderness (Princeton University Press, 2020). Farrell, a Yale sociologist, examines the ultra-wealthy who have made Jackson their home, turning it into the richest county in the United States (based on per-capita income), and – surprise, surprise – “the county with the nation’s highest level of income inequality.”[1] Farrell digs into the way Jackson’s ultra-wealthy try to utilize a mythologized vision of the American West and rural Western culture to reinvent and authenticate themselves, and I’m particularly interested in reading his take on the ultra-wealthy’s philanthropic conservation agendas. Though focused on Jackson and Teton County, WY, I suspect his analysis will ring true for mountain towns across the West.

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (2016)

Maybe you don’t want to read a novel about a man under house arrest for decades in a Moscow hotel while you’re physically distancing alone in your apartment and eating the salvageable parts of your third failed try at sourdough. But you might as well, since you’ve already watched everything on Netflix and “Hamilton” doesn’t drop on Disney Plus until July 3rd.

It had been far too long since I read something completely unrelated to my graduate coursework or research interests, and when I sat down to read Amor Towles’ bestselling novel A Gentleman in Moscow (Penguin Books, 2016) after this surreal spring semester ended, I remembered the importance of reading for pleasure. Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat, is placed under house arrest by the Bolsheviks at the elegant Metropole hotel near the Kremlin, and over his long tenure there he befriends many of the hotel’s staff and visitors, is introduced to the hotel’s secret hiding spaces by a precocious little girl, and tries to protect his friends and adopted family in the midst of the turmoil of Soviet Russia. I’m sure historians of Russia have plenty of smarter, more critical things to say about this book than I do, and I could also say plenty here about why it’s important for us as historians and as writers to read more novels and other works of fiction. But I will simply say that this resonant book was a tremendous joy to read and, like a good novel should, made me forget about the state of our world for a while.


Graeme Pente:

Julius S. Scott, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of Revolution (2018): Examining the information networks of the late eighteenth century, Scott shows how “rumors of emancipation” circulated among the free and unfree of the Black Atlantic and culminated in the Haitian Revolution. Unpublished for over thirty years, Scott’s 1986 Duke University dissertation anticipated major historiographical trends of recent decades.

Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (1857-1858): An unfinished manuscript that served in some measure as a rough draft for Capital ten years later, Marx’s Grundrisse is a work that covers a wide range of issues important to the philosopher, from alienation to automation. The geographer David Harvey offers a guided reading course that was released earlier this year.

Katie Randall:

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (1960)

There are certain things at which Russians are better than nearly anyone else, but two items in particular are especially true: their ability to withstand attempted invasions and the length of their novels. Life and Fate is a perfect example of the latter. Vasily Grossman’s magnum opus follows a cast of characters during the Nazi invasion of the USSR during the Second World War as they try to survive German bombardments and Stalinist paranoia and purges. The human emotions and quotidian experiences that Grossman captures in his writing are not only the result of his talents, but a reflection of his experience during World War II. Grossman was a Soviet war correspondent and he saw firsthand the destruction and psychological trauma sowed by totalitarian regimes and pernicious ideologies. If, like me, you’ve always been daunted by the prospect of Russian literature but you’re looking for an escape from the monotony of quarantine, Life and Fate might be the novel for you. The variety of characters ensures that you have someone to root for, and also against, and the sheer density of the tome serves as an excellent paper weight and yoga block.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow (2020)

I’ve always been enraptured by the (mis)adventures in mythology, especially when they involve a pantheon of gods and creatures that are a world unto themselves. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow not only takes readers back in time, but introduces them to the gods of the Mayans that once ruled the Yucatan. Set in the 1920s, young Casiopea Tun travels across Mexico, and beneath it to the Mayan underworld, to help the god of death reclaim his throne. Jazz music, gods and demons, and the spirit of tenacity that resides in quiet young women bring this magical book to life. Moreno-Garcia creates a fantastic world by seamlessly blending the allure of jazz and modernity with the forgotten gravitas of old gods and wonders of myth. Gods of Jade and Shadow is an excellent choice when you just want to be swept away into a world where Zoom meetings and social distancing cease to exist.

Kerri Clement:

Alex Blanchette, Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm (2020)

As I’m sure you’re aware, meat production supply chains have been in the news lately. The stories coming out of COVID-19 infected slaughterhouses and plants have been scary, but few news reports have taken a deeper historical look at the entangled relationship between hogs, meat production labor, and capitalism. Enter Porkopolis.

This book, written by anthropologist Alex Blanchette, examines how the hog body interacts with labor and capitalism in the United States. But it is also more than that. In the words of scholar Gabriel Rosenburg, “The book rejects a major structuring narrative of meat production: that it is primarily and exhaustively about enacting human domination over animals. The book argues it’s about how the reproduction of a particular form of vital capital (the herd) refashions human social relations.”[2] I’m interested to see how Porkopolis challenges what we think we know about meat production in the United States and the entangled nature of human-animal relationships.

Louise Teal, Breaking Into the Current: Boatwomen of the Grand Canyon (1994)

The promise of whitewater rafting  in the summer is the activity that keeps me going through tough academic semesters, endless Zoom meetings, or writer’s block. The slap of the water against the raft, the sun beating down during a rapid that leaves me with cotton-mouth, and the sand between my toes after a long day are the little moments that I hold close. Reading about rafting can also elicit some of those feelings and I’m looking forward to drifting through Breaking Into the Current.

As rafting developed over the twentieth century, it was a dude’s activity, with women often harassed or patronized if they tried to do more than sit in the boat. Breaking into the Current follows eleven women who forcefully rowed their way into whitewater rafting on the Grand Canyon in the twentieth century. Like many other outdoor activities, a stark gender disparity still exists in whitewater rafting even as more women guide trips and run rapids, but I’m looking forward to reading how these women broke into rafting. As one of the women stated, “I’ve done a lot,” says Becca Lawton, “but there’s been nothing like holding those oars in my hands and putting my boat exactly where I wanted it. Nothing.”



[2] Justin Farrell, Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 4.

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