Academic Books We’re Loving
April 26, 2022
Once you’re an academic, you’re kinda always an academic. It basically goes with the territory.
You never stop getting weirdly excited when you see a book or an article about something you’re interested in. You never stop feeling a bit giddy when you’re on a college campus. You never stop trying to get access to the treasure troves of JSTOR and Project Muse any way you can, even if you’re not officially affiliated with a university anymore. You never stop thinking “yeah, I could totally write a paper on [X thing that is currently interesting to me] in time to present at [X] conference” or “omg, this would make SUCH a good article” or “I really want this book, maybe I should offer to do a review for it even though it is unpaid work that takes forever…?”
(On that note, there are more unfortunate vestiges of academia that sometimes stick, too. The constantly having to remember that, hey, you should probably get paid for work, not just do days/ weeks/ months of labor for free. The imposter syndrome. The need to research every single aspect of something before you feel qualified to even bring it up in conversation. Being perpetually haunted because you actually know what ontology and phenomenology are.)
But seriously, sincerely, from the bottom of our geeky little hearts, we feel SO LUCKY that our jobs come with a built-in excuse to read everything. We love that running Carterhaugh means that we get to continue buying incredibly overpriced but wonderful academic books – and that they’re officially business expenses! WOOT!
We’ve been sitting in piles of books for weeks now, absorbing everything we can about bodylore and disability (for our current Carterhaugh Unruly Bodies class) and vampires (for a project we’re doing for another company) and, frankly, we’re in our element. We keep sending pictures of passages to each other and being overcome with delight.
We are… incredible nerds.
Here are a few of the academic books we’re particularly loving right now!
Dracula: Sense and Nonsense by Elizabeth Miller
This is probably the funniest academic book either of us has ever read. Basically, noted Dracula scholar Elizabeth Miller takes on a ton of the popular misconceptions (and total lies) that people have spread around about Bram Stoker and his novel. She does this by quoting from various academic books on the subject and then refuting their claims, often with incredibly snarky style. For example, she’ll often start her debunking with an exclamation of outright horror that anyone could be this stupid: things like “Balderdash!” “Wrong.” “What a crock.” and “Give me a break!” appear all over the place and are absolutely delightful. She even corrects some of her own earlier work! Even though this book is hilarious in many ways, there is also serious purpose to it. Dracula has spawned so many bizarre (and untrue) stories about it’s conception, the folklore it uses, the count’s connection to Vlad the Impaler, and other things that it’s 100% necessary for a book like this to exist!
Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality by Paul Barber
Ah, one of the best vampire books we know of that takes folklore 100% seriously and engages with it in a thoughtful way. One of the most interesting things Barber does is map several vampire attributes from folklore specifically to the way that the body decomposes after dying. He makes several fascinating (if gristly) connections that make a lot of sense. So much sense that we’re shocked no one has delved into this more before him! At the time vampire legends were at their height, we knew startlingly little about the science behind death and the body itself. Now that we know a lot more, things like blood at dead bodies’ noses and mouths, the bloating of the body after death, and several members of the same family dying right in a row simply make a lot more sense than they would have to people long ago. Part of the reason we love this is because we love how folklore is, so often, used as a way to explain the unexplainable!
Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc
There aren’t a lot of books out there yet connecting fairy tales and disability studies, and there’s a lot to love about Amanda Leduc’s crack at it in Disfigured. Leduc isn’t a folklorist or fairy-tale specialist (which she acknowledges in the book), and there are a few (pretty minor) inaccuracies in her discussions, but overall, it’s a really brilliant, insightful book. Leduc persuasively shows again and again how stories shape us just as much as we shape them and demonstrates why the pervasive negative patterns in our portrayals of disability matter. She writes, “To reclaim disability narrative in storytelling, we need to understand why stories like fairy tales have been fascinated with it right from the very beginning, and how the stories we tell have maligned difference – and disability – in order to make sense of it in the world.” Disney, Andersen, the Grimms, and more combine with Leduc’s personal stories in a compelling, very readable tapestry.
The Annotated African American Folktales edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar
This book is an absolute treasure trove of information about Black folklore in the US. Maria Tatar is pretty much the queen of fairy-tale scholarship, and her partnership with African American specialist Henry Louis Gates is seriously one of the best works of scholarly collaboration that we’ve ever seen. We drew heavily from this book when we were writing part of our most recent Smithsonian lecture, and we talked it up a bunch there, but we wanted to mention it here, too. There’s great information about Zora Neale Hurston, early folklore societies’ efforts to collect (and recognize the value of) Black American folklore, lots of context around Joel Chandler Harris and Br’er Rabbit tales, and so many wonderful tales themselves. It’s A++ scholarship, and it’s also very readable. The folktales and fairy tales anthologized here are also just fantastic.
Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Ann Schmiesing
It’s just… so good. Schmiesing brilliantly explores disability, not only in the Grimms’ fairy tales but also in the lives of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the men who collected and edited them. Identifying their own struggles with poor health and intense awareness of their mortality, Schmiesing argues that the Grimms’ own very personal perceptions of disability were reproduced in their revisions of their fairy tales. She draws a comparison between the fairy tale and the disabled body, arguing that the Grimms viewed the fairy tale as a genre that had sickened and eroded. So, if the fairy tales collected by the Grimms were “sick,” they required a restoration to their once healthy state. The Grimms’ editing process then becomes a kind of surgical quest for the reinstatement of wholeness to the impaired or diseased genre/ body. This is only a part of it – she also talks about gender and disability, monstrous birth, magical restoration, and so much more.
We’re also partway through several other really compelling books – we’re in the middle (or at the beginning) of The Secret Life of a Black Aspie: A Memoir by Anand Prahlad, What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness – Lessons from a Body in Revolt by Tessa Miller, and Ableism in Academia: Theorising Experiences of Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses in Higher Education edited by Nicole Brown and Jennifer Leigh. We might report back once we’ve finished!
What are some of your favorite scholarly books that you’ve read recently?
YES!! One of the reasons I love writing nonfiction for kids is that I get to learn about stuff that interests me and then (assuming I sell the project) people pay me to talk about it. Sometimes for years, during school visits. And tax-deductible book buying is the best thing ever. Some of my recent favourite academic books include Soil Ecology in Northern Forests (who knew dirt was so interesting?) The Princeton Field Guide to Prehistoric Mammals, Women Warriors: An Unexpected History (which has the most hilarious footnotes), The Bare Bone: An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton, and Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade.