On the Nightstand

Recently Professor Christina Root caught up with Emeritus Professor Carey Kaplan to talk about what she has been reading since her retirement from the English Department last May.

Knowing what a voracious reader on a wide range of subjects Carey has always been, I was interested to find out how retirement might be changing her habits and tastes. I started with that question.

Carey:  I have been reading European history for the past year or so. Although my field is eighteenth-century British literature, I find many lacunae in my knowledge, especially of European history from, say, 1650 to 1950. I have been especially interested in the interplay among various countries of religion, politics, scientific developments, and literature. When you study one country and one period intensively, as I have done with Great Britain, it is easy to narrow one’s focus and to neglect complex inter-relationships among cultures. Learning more about Russia, about the establishment of the German and Italian states, and about the Ottoman Empire has broadened my knowledge base and permitted new perspectives I didn’t have previously. I also find social history fascinating and have read a bunch of books on daily life in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This interest is not new, but now I have time to indulge it more thoroughly.

Christina: How about fiction? Have you continued to be drawn to novels?

Carey: My reading of fiction has not been extensive this year. I just finished, following your recommendation, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, which I enjoyed both because it is elegantly written and deals with the complicated life of a mature, educated, single woman–a topic rather scanted in literature until the 21st century. I also reread Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady along with Michael Gorra’s wonderful Portrait of a Novel: The Making of an American Masterpiece. James protagonist, Isabel Archer, is another independent woman struggling to define herself. Alice Munro is another writer I love. Once again, her complicated, often mature women characters along with her miraculous writing keep me coming back again and again.

Christina: Can you describe the role reading plays in your life?

Carey: There is nothing I enjoy more than reading. I cannot imagine my life without books. I read for knowledge and self-knowledge and for pure pleasure. Since I retired, I have noticed myself thinking that I may not have time to read on such and such a day. Then I realize that I have time to read what I want when I want most of the time. I feel a surge of joy at the knowledge. My reading has always been eclectic to a degree. I love British murder mysteries, the twee-er the better. I am a P.G. Wodehouse fanatic. I love biographies, memoirs, history, natural history, gardening books, cook books, short stories, novels. I am most at home with British writers but am capable of reading African, Asian and other literatures. You know how I feel about Proust. I read at least a volume a year. About a year ago I read about 20 of Trollope’s novels one right after the other for weeks and weeks. I read The New Yorker every week, the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, People, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping and a bunch more that are really embarrassing.

Christina: The English Department misses you egregiously, for all the things about you that this short exchange makes abundantly evident.

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