A peek into professors' pleasure-reading packs

Everybody's got a summer reading list. National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" has one. So does the Westlake Middle School in Thornwood, N.Y. Freshmen entering many American colleges do, too.

So, while Oprah's book club is defunct, advice abounds to help pick that perfect tome for beach, campground, or the big wicker porch chair.

One notable group of readers, however, has not offered up to the public such a list: professors. After sampling the pleasure reading that profs are pursuing this summer, maybe you'll think they should.

Professors have a reputation for slicing through stacks of books faster than a Jedi light saber through clone warriors. They read all year to prepare for classes and write footnote-laden articles and books of their own. They soldier on through Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason," piles of undergraduate essays, and the Journal of Corrosion Science and Engineering.

So, when finally released from such duties, watch out: The academics are on their summer prowl. A highly unscientific sample of professors' personal reading this season shows a crazy quilt of authors and subjects, with selections ranging from familiar classics to the expectedly recondite, from detective novels to political biography.

"I always read my cookbooks, because I finally have the time to sit down and really get into them," says Carolyn Marvin, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "But the other thing that makes summer so great is reading big long narratives."

Besides spending more quality time with Betty Crocker, Dr. Marvin is also plowing through Philip Dray's "At the Hands of Persons Unknown," a history of lynching in the Southern United States. True, it fits with a course she will teach this fall on "cultural taboos." Yet she's reading it mostly out of personal interest, she says, since she hails from Louisiana and wants to learn more about a subject that was out of bounds for so long.

"Lynching is becoming the focus of the history of the South," she says. "It's this mythical, unexplored topic. I grew up in a period when civil rights was just beginning. One of the things you grow up wondering is, Why did people [lynchers] have these crazy ideas in the first place?"

Marvin is also giving fresh attention to William Faulkner's "Intruder in the Dust." And if she has time, she hopes to get to "Eisenhower at War," 800-plus pages by the former president's grandson, David Eisenhower.

Low literature on a flight from Paris

For one glorious week in a rented cottage on Cape Cod, between games of Trivial Pursuit with family, Stephen Holt will gobble his literary goodies. A professor of physics at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., his stack includes books by "Get Shorty" crime novelist Elmore Leonard.

It's not high literature, and that doesn't matter a whit.

"What I love about it is that he's a master of urban dialogue, but without a lot of the graphic, gratuitous sex and violence," Dr. Holt says. "I just flew back from Paris – basically I can get through one of Leonard's books per flight."

Holt, a former director of space sciences at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., took a leap of faith last fall by accepting an untenured teaching post at Olin – the first new independent engineering college to be built in decades. He and other faculty have been crafting what they hope will be a revolutionary undergraduate engineering curriculum.

So in addition to Leonard mysteries, he wants during his week off to delve into "Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem" by Simon Singh.

As a backup, Holt also has on his list Tom Robbins's "Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates," and the Pulitzer Prize-winning sociological treatise "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," by UCLA physiology professor Jared Diamond.

In the West ...

Adrienne Peek is leaving her job as a remedial-writing instructor to become an English teacher at a community college in Modesto, Calif.

But in addition to packing, she's weaving a few books into the operation to keep things fun. There's "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winner "Empire Falls," by Richard Russo. And a couple of Steinbeck classics she admits to never having read: "The Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden."

"I buy books, many books, all the time during the year at a used book store for some day when I have time," Ms. Peek says. "Usually that means waiting for summer. There's a lot of delight in not having to think, 'OK, what am I going to do for class with this?' "

Ted Jelen is chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. For fun this summer, he's been devouring Robert Caro's third volume of his biography of President Lyndon Johnson: "Master of the Senate." Beyond that 1,152-page doorstop is Jay Winik's "April 1865: The Month That Saved America," about the fragile days after the Civil War.

But he's also had an unfortunate and unexpected blowout. After 100 pages, he put down "Theodore Rex," a biography of Teddy Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. "Just not my cup of tea, I guess" he opines. "Reads like a photo album."

A sci-fi Defense Department

Engineer Robin Murphy at the University of South Florida designs rescue robots, some of which helped search for survivors in the World Trade Center rubble. She's reading the "Fire Officer's Handbook of Tactics" by John Norman. She admits it relates to her work, but says she can't help it.

"I won't be doing a vacation this year – too much work needs to be done in the aftermath of 9/11," she writes in an e-mail.

Ordinarily, her summers are all about catching up on the slew of science-fiction books about robots. This summer, though, she's busy working with the US Department of Defense.

She's squirreling away some time for the likes of "Diplomatic Immunity," Lois McMaster Bujold's latest installment in her sci-fi series about the Vorkosigan family.

"The interactions that the Barrayaran military has with the rest of the galaxy pretty much parallel my experiences with the Department of Defense," she writes. "I've been out in the field with the Marines and [am] now working on a study for the Air Force. It's great that someone understands how differently scientists act and think from highly trained military professionals!"

• E-mail claytonm@csps.com

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