Books to Get You Thinking

The Pulitzer awards in journalism, letters, drama and music have long become a mainstay in the world of publishing.  Each year, months before the official announcement of the awards there is widespread speculation about the winners in different categories. On April 16th Columbia University announced the much awaited 96th Pulitzer Prize awards for journalism, as well as for books spanning different genres.  The big disappointment this year was the conspicuous absence of a winner for the first time in 35 years in the popular category of fiction. Though three novels were declared finalists, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia!  by Karen Russell and The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace, none of them garnered enough support from the Pulitzer Board to be declared a winner of the prestigious award.   Readers can delve into each of these titles, all owned by the Mercer County Library and decide which of them should have been the winner …..  For other categories here are the 2012 Pulitzer grabbing titles:

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt                                                                                                                                                                                              The Pulitzer nonfiction award went to Stephen Greenblatt for his book Swerve: How the World Became Modern. The author, a professor of the Humanities at Harvard, centers this book around an ancient text penned by Lucretius, titled, The Nature of Things, a beautiful work of poetry with deep philosophical underpinnings.  After being given up as lost for almost a thousand years, the manuscript was discovered accidentally in a German monastery by Poggio Bracciolini one of the most renowned book hunters of the Renaissance. The reemergence of the book heralded a whole new wave of thinking, subsequently influencing the works of Galileo, Freud, Darwin and Einstein. The premise of Lucretius’s writings that transformed prevalent thinking was that human life and all matter in the universe was made up of atoms that were in constant and swerving motion - “there is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design.” Lucretius viewed religion as a force warping human thinking.  Greenblatt skillfully interweaves fascinating ideas and stories from paper making, book collecting, penmanship, and libraries into a sweeping chronicle of human civilization and intellectual history dating back from the days of the Renaissance and 15th Century Europe.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable                                                                                                                                                                                                                               In the category of History the late Manning Marable received the Pulitzer for his book on Malcolm X. A striking figure in twentieth century American History and the Civil war, the multifaceted and complex personality of Malcolm X is the subject of this deeply researched book.  Manning Marable, a professor of African American Studies, History and Public Affairs at Columbia University, who had worked on this biography for almost a decade died just three days before the book was published in 2011. Using a wide range of hitherto unused sources including government files and interviews with people who had known Malcolm X both as friends or enemies, the book gives valuable insights into the personal life of Malcolm X, his political and religious beliefs, the role he played in the Civil War. The author provides a fascinating portrayal of the different and distinct periods in the life of Malcolm X and the progressive evolution of his political views as he constantly reinvented himself - from the earliest days when he roamed the streets of New York and Boston as a renegade, his subsequent conversion to Islam, his bitter break with the Nation of Islam and the story behind his ultimate violent assassination.

George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis                                                                                                                                                                                                        George Kennan is a historical icon, best known for his sweeping influence in shaping post war American foreign policy. He brought to the forefront the concept of containment, in the two important documents he drafted, Long Telegram and X Article serving as the foundation of the Cold War that dominated the subsequent decades.  John Gaddis, a professor of History and Strategy  at Yale University  has produced this Pulitzer winning  biography of Kennan containing over thirty years of in depth research using interviews, letters, diaries and documents that Kennan provided him back in 1979 on the understanding that the book  be  put in print only after his death.  Published more than five years after Kennan’s death at age 101, this epic biography  leaves readers with a lucid analysis of the  role Kennan played in the unfolding drama of  American and world politics in the period following  World War II,  as well as a rare glimpse into the  many landmark moments that dotted his long and eventful career. Especially fascinating are the parts where the author vividly captures memorable moments in Keenan’s life such as his meetings with President Roosevelt and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Life on Mars: Poems by Tracy Smith                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                The author, Tracy Smith received the news about the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry coincidentally on the day of her 40th birthday. The Prize was awarded for the collection of poems she had written in Life on Mars, some of them a eulogy honoring her father, an engineer on the Hubble Space telescope who died in 2008. A teacher in creative writing at Princeton University, Tracy Smith gazes up into the far reaching mystery and vastness of the heavens and the universe and transfers the feelings of wonder, awe and inspiration into the powerful poems contained in her book. Every line invokes breathtaking imagery that stays with the reader long after putting down the book:

"Like a wide wake, rippling
Infinitely into the distance, everything

That ever was still is, somewhere,
Floating near the surface, nursing
Its hunger for you and me

And now we’ve named
And made a place of.

Like groundswell sometimes
It surges up, claiming a little piece
Of where we stand.

Like the wind the rains ride in on,
It sweeps across the leaves,

Pushing in past windows
We didn’t slam quickly enough
Dark water it will take days to drain…."

From Everything That Ever Was in Life on Mars by Tracy Smith Graywolf Press, 2011.

- Nita Mathur 


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