Oberlin Blogs

What I Read This Semester

December 28, 2019

Meredith Warden ’23

Now that my first semester in college has officially ended, I can safely say that I’ve read a lot these past four months. Coming into college, I was optimistic that I’d have time to read for pleasure, but I was mostly wrong on that count: the majority of the reading I did was for school. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun—I genuinely enjoyed a lot of the books I read, so I thought it would be a good idea to copy this blog post from a while ago and share with you a snippet of what I read over the semester. I’m only doing two books from each class (not including my Geology class, because we didn't read any full books)—if I wrote about every book, along with all of the excerpts and other readings I did, this post would be ridiculously long!

A photo of 16 stacked books that I read over the semester!
All of the books I read (either fully or partly) this semester! 

American History to 1877

Book of Ages, Jill Lepore 

When I saw this book on the syllabus for my American history class, I had high expectations, having devoured Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States over the summer. I was not disappointed. Lepore details the life of Jane Franklin, Ben Franklin’s younger sister, weaving together scant primary sources with historical inferences to tell Jane’s “unwritten story.” That is, through focusing on the contrasts between Ben’s notoriety and Jane’s obscurity, Lepore tells a story of neglected and overlooked histories, of opportunities available to men but not to women. Because Jane, unlike her brother, did not write well and thus left little trace of her life, Lepore must take risky historical leaps, but these leaps pay off: this book is engaging and illuminating, and I really enjoyed reading it. On to more books by Lepore (next up on my list: New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan)!

Never Caught, Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Like Book of Ages, Dunbar’s book focuses on a historical character typically overlooked: an African-American woman, Ona Maria Judge, who was enslaved to George and Martha Washington. This book challenges the common view of Washington as the virtuous Revolutionary hero, as it highlights his relentless pursuit of Judge after she escapes. Likewise, Dunbar also strikingly writes about how Judge claimed her human agency in escaping and living a free life, an agency that contradicted justifications of slavery as ‘beneficial.’ This book was a pleasure to read, as it certainly deepened my understanding of African American resistance to slavery and brought up questions of how to think about Revolutionary ‘heroes’ today. 

Justice in America?

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson 

This was the first book I read for my first-year seminar (FYS), Justice in America?. It was a profoundly moving book to read, as Stevenson writes with empathy and force to show how many of the death row inmates he’s defended are victims of a racially unjust system. This book stimulated many in-depth and emotional discussions in my class that made me rethink the way I thought about the criminal justice system and the concept of, as Stevenson writes, ‘just mercy.’ I recommend reading this book and seeing the movie based on it that’s coming out soon (my first-year seminar has plans to go see it at the Apollo)!

Lynching and Spectacle, Amy Louise Wood 

This book was not required reading, but I used it for my FYS final research paper about the parallels between post-Reconstruction spectacle lynchings and current police brutality footage, and how to ethically witness and use these racially violent images. Wood provides a fascinating look at racial terror during the late 1800s, writing with respect and power to show how spectacle lynchings were used to uphold white supremacy. Honestly, this book was on my reading list before Oberlin, so I was glad that I was able to incorporate it into classwork! It was a provocative and engaging book that I highly recommend to anyone interested in historical issues of race in the U.S.

Explaining Social Power 

The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli 

I had to read a bit of Machiavelli’s The Prince in high school, but reading the entirety of it complicated the phrase “Machiavellian” for me—although Machiavelli advocates for violence and that ‘It is better to be feared than loved,’ his argument is actually much more nuanced. He also writes about the importance of taking into account the people’s will while ruling, being one of the first political theorists to discuss (although not in these words) ‘the consent of the governed.’ Not discounting Machiavelli’s ideas about violence and maintaining power at any cost, his relevance is still interesting to ponder, given the context in which he was writing (16th-century Italy during intense political conflict) has similarities and differences to today. 

The Colonizer and the Colonized, Albert Memmi 

My favorite book for this class. Memmi’s book has been banned throughout numerous colonies for its rhetoric, and it’s easy to see why. Memmi writes about the colonial state, making convincing arguments about its inherent racism and how the colony affects both the colonizer and the colonized. He also discusses the fascinating theory that colonizers' dominant ideology (or, the construction of a collective body of knowledge) is just as important in maintaining state control as military power. Overall, this is an incredibly interesting and powerful book about colonization and structures of power.

There's a lot more, but I will leave you here with a taste of the wonderful books that I greatly enjoyed reading over these past four months. On to the next semester's reading list!

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