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One in a million

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A reader's guide

O'Neill Library, fourth floor. Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

O'Neill Library, fourth floor. Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

EDITOR'S NOTE: In December 2003, a mere 16 years after acquiring its millionth volume, the Boston College library system celebrated the arrival of its 2-millionth (see “Book marker,” below). To commemorate the milestone, BCM asked faculty from a variety of disciplines to report on the most influential books in their fields that were among the million most recently acquired by the University.


David Quigley, American history: The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, by David Roediger (Haymarket, 1991)

I started grad school in 1991, planning to work on race and the American city. By decade's end, I had done just that, focusing on postbellum Manhattan. But along the way, my understandings of race, class, and American public life were altered by Roediger's masterpiece. Wages reimagined the 19th century by linking race with the history of America's working class and by exploring the racial identities of white Americans. The book ushered in an era of thinking about race as an idea that is at least partly constructed by culture, and not by genes entirely. It helped initiate a golden age of scholarship on race in America.
» David Quigley's faculty page
» More on David Roediger

Solomon Friedberg, mathematics: Oeuvres, Collected Papers, by Jean-Pierre Serre, four volumes (Springer-Verlag, 1986)

Progress in mathematics is typically communicated through research papers. I would, therefore, choose the collected papers of Jean-Pierre Serre, a mathematician now retired from the Collège de France, in Paris. Serre's contributions span a half-century and include fundamental developments in algebra, number theory, complex analysis, topology, and algebraic geometry. His contributions, which in this space can only be described in the dense technical shorthand of mathematics, include the use of spectral theory to study the homotopy groups of spheres, the use of sheaves in the context of complex variable theory and of algebraic geometry, and the formulation of the Serre conjecture, which played a role in Wiles's proof of Fermat's last theorem. Serre's work is distinguished by its breadth and its depth. In 2003, Professor Serre was awarded the first ever Abel Prize—similar to the Nobel Prize, but for mathematics.
» Solomon Friedberg's homepage
» An interview with Jean-Pierre Serre
» Serre's achievements as explained by the Abel Prize committee (PDF)

Suzanne Matson, English: The Wild Iris, by Louise Glück (Ecco, 1992)

Glück's sixth poetry collection appeared to instant acclaim, including receipt of the Pulitzer Prize. Twelve years later, its high-concept formulation remains as stunningly original as it was at the time of its publication. The volume weaves a polyphonic colloquy among voices from the "green" world; a god who will "disclose / virtually nothing"; and a human speaker who tends a garden, searchingly vulnerable as she tries, through insufficient language, to process unruly states of feeling, intimations of mortality, and the persistent hunger for intellectual certainties. The memorable lyricism makes an immediate connection to readers; students reading it in my classes often name it as their favorite book of the semester.
» "Unreasonable Fears," a poem by Suzanne Matson
» Louise Glück's appointment as U.S. poet laureate
» Poems by Glück

Larry Wolff, European history: A History of Private Life, edited by Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer, five volumes (Harvard, 1987-91)

These stunningly illustrated and beautifully translated volumes explore the history of private life, from the ancient world to the 20th century, evaluating the historical dimensions of such elusive subjects as solitude and intimacy, marriage and family, fantasy and sexuality. Conceived under the editorship of two towering French historians, the volumes employ an array of brilliant scholars: for example, Peter Brown, the great explicator of Augustine, on the loneliness of early Christian hermits; Roger Chartier, a noted historian of books, on the rise, during the Renaissance, of solitary and silent reading; and the social historian Alain Corbin on domesticity and hysteria in the 19th century. These volumes seek to expand frontiers of research by thinking historically about the most intimate aspects of culture and society, and they have set a compelling agenda for historians.
» Larry Wolff's faculty page
» More on Georges Duby

Alan Wolfe, American politics: The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power and the Pursuit of Office, by Alan Ehrenhalt (Random House, 1991)

Looking at politicians as they are and not as we expect them to be, the journalist Alan Ehrenhalt showed that people increasingly run for office not so much for power or gain, but because they have chosen to devote their lives to the weird calling called politics. Liberals and conservatives both believe in causes to such an extent that they are willing to put up with the small talk, long hours, and bad food that campaigns demand. And those who make good candidates, therefore, do not make good leaders, since they lack the primary skills for achieving success in a divided government: the ability to bargain and compromise. Beautifully written, with telling examples, Ehrenhalt's book is a classic in political science that rivals another great work in the field written in another era by a journalist, Samuel Lubell's The Future of American Politics (1952).
» Alan Wolfe bio
» "Corrupt Politicans, Good Leaders": WBUR broadcast with Alan Ehrenhalt

Richard Kearney, philosophy: River of Compassion: A Christian Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, by Bede Griffiths (Element Books, 1992)

Griffiths was a Benedictine monk from England who traveled to India and set up an ashram for the study and practice of dialogue between Christians and Hindus. I have to say that the book taught me as much about neglected aspects of my own Catholic tradition as it did about the Vedantic traditions of Asia. Like Thomas Merton on Tao or the Dalai Lama on the Gospels, Griffiths brings us back home by generously engaging with ways of thinking other than our own.
» Richard Kearney's faculty page
» A biography of Bede Griffiths

Brendan Rapple, library science: Being Digital, by Nicholas Negroponte (Knopf, 1995)

Writing soon after the birth of the World Wide Web, Negroponte, founder of MIT's Media Lab, provided a fascinating overview of how digital media transformed our lives in the early 1990s and foretold the future of life's digital dimensions. In particular he predicted that the change from atoms (physical books) to bytes (content in digital format) was irrevocable and unstoppable. His views have been prescient and influential in the library world. Today electronic databases, e-journals, e-books, and a host of diverse digital multimedia are much more the norm than the exception, and libraries have changed dramatically in the kind of services they offer and in how they imagine themselves.
» Nicholas Negroponte interviewed on Silicon Valley Radio
» Excerpts from Negroponte's Being Digital

(continued below)

Book marker

 Galileo's Istoria. Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

Galileo's Istoria. Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

When librarians look to commemorate the acquisition of a 2-millionth volume, they don't honor whatever happens to drop through the mail slot after number 1,999,999. And so it came as no surprise that Boston College's 2-millionth book, honored at a ceremony in December 2003, turned out to be Istoria e Dimostrazione Intorno alle Macchie Solari e Loro Accidenti, and not Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs.

Istoria, or History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots and Their Properties, was written by Galileo Galilei and published in Rome in 1613. A collection of treatises in the form of letters to a German patron, the book describes Galileo's observations of sunspots. "Today this short book would earn Galileo three Nobel Prizes," contends Daniel Coquillette, the Monan Professor of Law and a rare book scholar. He cites the book's proofs that the earth revolves on its axis and around the sun, and Galileo's positing of the principle of inertia. The volume was a gift from Angelo and Wega Firenze, drawn from the collections of Wega Firenze's late father, Pasquale Sconzo. A mathematician and astronomer, Sconzo was an IBM research scientist who, in Italy in the late 1920s, bought an inexpensive box of books at an estate sale without knowing that it contained the Galileo treasure (recently appraised at between $20,000 and $25,000). At more than 2 million, Boston College's book holdings are among the top 100 in the country, in the range of libraries at Georgetown and Boston University. Harvard's 15 million volumes are the most held by an American university.

Nicole Estvanik

» View a slide show of Galileo's Istoria


(continued from above)

Phyllis Goldfarb, law: Minding the Law, by Anthony Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner (Harvard, 2000)

Mining anthropology, linguistics, cognitive psychology, literary theory, history, classics, and poetry, the authors try to identify the primary methods by which law works—categorization, narration, and persuasion—and to understand more richly what sort of "way of life" law is. For example, in analyzing the Supreme Court's opinion upholding the constitutionality of the death penalty despite staggering evidence of race discrimination in its application, the authors demonstrate that while the underlying reasons for the decision are tied up with American cultural narratives about race and the death penalty, these reasons are shielded from critical scrutiny by the rhetoric the court chooses to use. Reading a court opinion is a richer enterprise after experiencing Amsterdam and Bruner's book.
» Phyllis Goldfarb's faculty page
» The New York Times on Minding the Law (registration required)

Diane Vaughan, sociology: The Social Meaning of Money: Pin Money, Paychecks, Poor Relief, and Other Currencies, by Viviana Zelizer (Basic Books, 1994)

This book not only rechanneled economic sociology but also had an impact on economics. Attacking the understanding of money as a uniform commodity with established, unvarying worth, Zelizer shows how individuals reinterpret its economic worth in social terms. Her book is a social history drawn from archival documents, including women's magazines, household manuals, court cases, and memoirs. In it, she describes an "earmarking" process by which women, business, and government have revalued money through such innovations as pin money, money as gifts, food stamps, and other welfare monies, which divest currency of its impersonality and embed its value in social ties.
» Diane Vaughan's homepage
» Princeton Weekly Bulletin on Zelizer

Peter Gray, psychology: The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, edited by Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (Oxford, 1992)

Perhaps the most significant development in psychology in the past 20 years is the increased use of evolutionary theory to inform psychological theories about the human mind, a movement referred to as evolutionary psychology. The Adapted Mind is a manifesto for this movement and a description of many of its accomplishments. The chapters—authored by leaders of this movement—show how evolutionary theory has been useful in constructing theories of cooperation, mating and sex, parenting and child development, language, the mental foundations of culture, and sleep, where, for example, evolutionary theory posits that sleep came about to preserve energy and to protect individuals during that portion of each day when there is little value, and considerable danger, in moving about.
» Peter Gray's faculty page
» Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer

Colleen Griffith, theology: She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, by Elizabeth A. Johnson (Crossroad, 1993)

This is an historic book, because how one speaks of God influences current and future Christian thought and practice. Johnson connects feminist and classical wisdom to recast the "persons" of the Trinity in metaphors that have female resonance. She begins with "Spirit-Sophia," whom she describes as the living God vivifying, empowering, and gracing the world. Then she moves on to describe "Jesus-Sophia" as Wisdom made flesh, and "Mother Sophia" who is origin, creator, and source of life. This recasting is not just conceptually and morally adequate, it is inspiring and emancipatory. Christian theology must grapple with the expansive vision of God offered here.
» Colleen Griffith's IREPM faculty page
» "Women's Place," by Elizabeth Johnson

 

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