Art Works Blog

What's on Your Bookshelf?

Washington, DC

Photo by Dave Crosby via Flickr

If there's one thing most of us have in common here at the NEA---other than a passion for the arts---it's that we're readers. So we polled our colleagues to find out what's on everyone's reading lists this summer. (One blog post isn't enough to contain all the responses we received---expect part two some time next week.)

Bora Chung, Staff Assistant, Office of the Chairman

I?m reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood because it has great descriptions of a dystopian society and is a book I can pick up whenever I get ten minutes or on the Metro. I'm also reading various Spanish books because I?m going to Spain!

Lois Fields, Accountant

One of the books I read this summer was My Father?s Bonus March by Adam Langer. I?ve enjoyed his fiction about growing up in Chicago and figured I?d like his memoir where he tries to figure out why his father was interested in this little tidbit of WWI history. 

I suspect my next book will be City of Thieves by David Benioff---it?s the September selection for my book club.

Michael Holtmann, Administrator, Office of the Chief of Staff

I wonder if I am alone in this regard, but I never anticipated coming to a point in my life when I would look back and wonder how I managed to avoid so many of the books I thought I would have read by now. There are so many books I should have read by now!  I won?t name them here (my feeble attempt to protect myself from embarrassment), but the list is long. As a way of acknowledging this creeping lack, as a way of redeeming myself for failing to have read so many masterpieces, I now make a list every year of five books I must finally turn my attention to. Inevitably, I turn my attention to at least one of them during summertime.

And so this summer I find myself in the thick of Herman Melville?s Moby-Dick, a book familiar to everyone, but for me, at least, a book I had never even paged through until this year. I wonder if perhaps the great books are so easy for us to avoid because they are so seemingly familiar: even if, like me, you haven?t read Melville?s massive tome, you know the story involves the pursuit of a whale, you?ve heard of Captain Ahab (and are most likely able to conjure an image of him), and you may even know the book?s famous first words: "Call me Ishmael." Perhaps, like me, that was enough.  (Enough not to want to pick up the book, that is.)

So it is with great surprise that I find myself captivated by Moby-Dick. The chapters, which unfold chronologically through time, are chiseled vignettes, sometimes setting a scene, sometimes introducing a character, sometimes illuminating esoteric, 19th-century facts about whaling. It can be dense and difficult and strange, but the book has a cinematic quality, and the dialogue, to my ears, brings the characters memorably to life. It can be manic, it can be disorienting, it can be digressive, it can be obtuse---in other words, it can be quite modern. Yes, the more time I spend reading Moby-Dick, the more compelling it is to me, and the more convinced I am that there is a touch of wisdom in it. 

Those books I?ve been avoiding? Yeah, I may never get to all of them. But I have to say they are often more rewarding than I had imagined. The novelist J. M. Coetzee writes, "The classic defines itself by surviving."  There?s something to that, isn?t there? 

Jillian Miller, Director, Guidelines and Panel Operations

Embarrassing to say, but I'm reading the Stieg Larsson trilogy (Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, etc.) because A.B.[Spellman] gave them to me.

Sarah Cook, Literature Specialist

I'm reading Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir because who doesn?t love a book about great American dynasties (in this case, the Vanderbilts)?

Adam Kampe, Media Specialist

Love Is a Mixtape by Rob Sheffield. Going into it, I was looking for something light and breezy---an easy read to cut the thick, wet, heavy District air. But what I got was the exact opposite, for the most part. See, I overlooked the subtitle: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time--"loss" being the imperative word here. This was quite possibly the most heartbreaking memoir to have crossed these eyes. However, it was also one of the funniest reads I've inhaled in recent memory. Chuck Klosterman, god of pop culture, testifies on the back jacket that "LIAMT is the happiest, saddest, greatest book about rock 'n roll that I've ever experienced." Here's an example of why I couldn't agree more. "When we die, we will turn into songs, and we will hear each other and remember each other." Nearly every other sentence in this book rivals that line in poetic weight and emotional honesty.

Jamie Bennett, Director, Office of Public Affairs

I'm reading Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity by John Kao. Kao recently took over as Chair of the World Economic Forum?s Global Advisory Council on Innovation. This [see below] is what he wrote on his website about his book Jamming, and I especially liked the notion that improvisation in jazz might be tied to creativity and innovation in business (freedom within limits). also I found a copy remaindered on the Internet for $1.98:

"One of my great loves is jazz.  While growing up, I was a serious classical piano student, but when I heard the jazz greats at the age of 12, the world opened up. How, I wondered, did Bill Evans or Thelonius Monk create those amazing sounds?

"My lifelong interest in jazz led me to think about the connection between improvisation in jazz and the innovation process itself. It was an itch I could not help but scratch. The result was a book, published in 1996 called Jamming. Published by Harper Collins, it was a best seller and remains in print to this day.  It was also printed in some 16 foreign languages. I still get emails to this day about Jamming.

"One of my greatest pleasures is to see how the notion of Jamming has propagated. One day in 1998, I got a phone call out of the blue from Ray Ozzie, now at Microsoft to tell me he had created a new software product called ?groove? that was inspired by Jamming. IBM subsequently launched a series of global jam sessions; in fact one executive there actually confronted me over my ?appropriation? of their idea, only to be told that in fact I was the source.

"One of my other greatest pleasures is doing jazz demonstrations in the context of keynote speeches, during which I use the piano to illustrate some of the deep principles of how jazz is created."

What's on YOUR reading list?

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